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Living and Writing in the Natural World

Bumping into the Holy Grail off the Maui shore

The Spotted Eagle Ray


The sun was just cresting Haleakala to the east as I hefted my snorkel bag and Big Agnes collapsible camp chair and headed for Kama'ole 2 Beach Park.  With the trade winds revving up early each day here on southeastern Maui, I wanted to be in the water when the first light filtered down onto the reef, before the wind and waves roiled up the water (as had happened yesterday).  It felt great to be walking down South Kihei Drive, with hardly any traffic, the tourists and homeless campers not yet up, and perhaps the most scenic (and snorkeling blessed) stretch of beaches in Hawaii on my left the whole way from our rented condo.  

I dropped my shoes and chair against a dune at the north end of Kama'ole 2, and continued along the high ground of beach access across the point where I'd be snorkeling, a relatively recent lava flow from the aforesaid volcanic mountain several thousand years ago, the frozen rocks creating an incredibly varied and "friendly" reef habitat for creatures swarming the waters there.  A minute later I walked down into the south end of Kama'ole 1 Beach Park, left my snorkel bag amonst the black lava rocks there, and walked into the water with my mask and snorkel atop my head and fins in hand.  When the water deepened, I put my fins on, pulled my mask and snorkel down, and turned to swim out to skirt the shoreline rocks against which the surf was lapping.  

Not 60 seconds into my swim, with more sand than rocky reef below me, there it was:  a Spotted Eagle Ray pulsating slowly beside me, its undulating "wings" propelling it effortlessly through the water.  The holy grail of my underwater career, a creature unsurpassed for beauty of appearance and movement.  While my Scuba-experienced high school buddy Jim has seen plenty, I've avoided Scuba (yes, I'm at heart a Luddite) and seen only one Eagle Ray in my water-surface-snorkeling experience of half a century.  (See my blog for August 2019.)   And this morning:  my second Eagle Ray, flowing past me as gracefully and beautifully as the first time.  I broke my wonted rule and followed her for maybe a minute, until she showed some signs of being annoyed, then broke off with a benediction to her.  

It figured I'd see another Eagle Ray in the sandy-rich area; these rays are not filter feeders, like their more well-known (and larger) cousins Manta Rays.  Instead, the Eagle Rays search through the sand for buried molluscs, and upon finding one simply crush the (substantial!) shells with their fused teeth of each jaw (powered by sturdy jaw muscles, analogous to our masseter muscle).  Spit the shell fragments out and feast on the mollusc flesh! 

While a bit anticlimactic, the rest of the 45-minute snorkel was also good.  This area had been turtle-rich last year, and I wasn't disappointed.  Most of the dozen Green Sea Turtles I swam amongst had just awakened and risen from the sandy bottom when the sun's rays brightened their habitat, and cleaner fish were clustered around them thickly, scouring the shells of the algae encrusting it.  The smaller turtles looked almost like balloons, so thick were the feeding fish around them.  The big guys, though, sailed serenely through the early morning waters in their calm, unhurried way, ignoring the fish clustered about them.  I sensed something big beside me, and twisted about to see a large adult turtle, maybe four feet long, had glided up within a foot of me.  After my adrenaline rush had subsided, I swam along enjoying his company, visions of a St. Francis of the Sea glimmering in my head. Soon he veered down toward a tempting clutch of red algae, and I was just Ray again, rather than a soggy St. Francis. 

Eagle rays thrill me.  Sea turtles reassure me; they radiate an aura of certainty of their place in the scheme of things, going unhurried about their daily business with not a care in the world.  Sea water becoming acidified due to global warming?  It'll pass, give or take a thousand years.  Pollutants washing down from growth of coastal farms and businesses?  It'll pass too, in a millennium or two.  I'm doing my thing, they seem to say; and my kind will be here doing their thing long after you foolish humans are gone.  And you know what?  I think they may very likely be right.  

Lots of fish in the Butterflyfish family pass below me amongst the rock reefs, usually in pairs, all brimming with yellows, oranges, and black: the raccoon, four-spot, teardrop, threadfin and more.  Many sex-changing wrasses too, especially a breathtaking swarm of the red/green/blue ringed Christmas wrasse.  Lots of the blue and black, spotted trunkfish, with their boxy shape.  And large schools of the Yellowfin goatfish, their yellow stripes glinting from the white bodies massed together.  

Then, of course, my favorite, perhaps, the reef triggerfish, sporting whites and golds framed in black, with a touch of red, whose Hawaian name (humu-humu nuku-nuku apua'a) I required my Pacific Basin Natural History students to memorize.  (This was often the only thing the students remembered from the course a decade on, according to many I'd meet long after the course.)  

I was tiring; 77-year-old guys don't have the energy for long snorkels that they used to.  Swimming back to the shore, I noticed a moray eel poking his head out a hole in the rocky reef.  Then, my gear stuffed into the bag, I paused atop the beach access trail at the point between Kam 1 and Kam 2,  enjoying the feel of the sun on my skin as I gazed out at the waves surging over the emergent rocks of the point.  Yes, I think the sea turtles are right.  Everything is doing fine out there, and because the ocean is so huge with so much inertia, the creatures out there will take all the perturbations of climate change in stride and come out fine on the other side in a couple of thousand years.  Even if in our foolishness we stumble into a nuclear war and poison the air and water with radioactivity, that too will get absorbed, maybe even sparking some mutations that help creatures get through the tough period.  

But it will be alright, as it is now.  I take no pleasure in being persuaded to the conclusion--based on research for my last two books, and the scientific articles I've consulted--that our inadequate response to the various phenomena associated with climate change will very likely destroy human civilization, and very possibly extinguish the human species on our planet.  Here I join others similarly persuaded.  Certainly, whether our kind will be here after the thousand years or more of recovery from climate changes' catastrophes is an open question.  My hunch is probably not; we're very dependent upon the hugely intricate mechanical/electrical/computerized system that we've woven around ourselves.  But perhaps, just perhaps, some few of us in sheltered, out-of-the-way places will survive, and remember how to grow our own food and tend the soil, even how to fold the raising of chickens (and their manure!) into the system as my buddy Al does on his farm, to create a balanced, sustaining, self-enclosed practice.  Any survivors will have reverted to the hunting/gathering/gardening mode that modern archaeological research shows characterized our kind's first 10,000 years as settled villagers, before the momentous events of about 2,500 BCE (leading to urbanization, patriarchy, misogyny, extraction and production of luxury goods, and warfare) changed it all and led us directly and inexorably to where we are today.   

Perhaps.  But either way, the oceans and their creatures will remain, tho perhaps a bit changed genetically to cope with the new conditions.  Life will continue to pulse and flow serenely onward amongst the sun rising over Haleakala and the tides pushing in and pulling out.  Eagle Rays will glide effortlessly along the sandy bottoms, and fish will clean sea turtle shells, and all will be well.  I grin in the sunlight overlooking the wave-splashed point, adjust my snorkel bag on my shoulder, and stroll toward Kama'ole 2 and an hour lolling in the morning sun on my Big Agnes chair until my good wife passes by on her morning beach stroll.  All is well.  


(For an account of the momentous events clustered around 2,500 BCE, see Raymond Barnett's Forgotten World, available from Amazon.)


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A Tale of Two Creeks

Tammy sketching on the bank of Sabino Creek


For a fellow who grew up in land-locked Oklahoma—maybe because of it—my happiest times out of doors have always centered on water.  I don't discriminate; the water can be salty or fresh.  Hawaii has provided the former; by the time my son was 11 years of age he'd traveled there 12 times with us.  Tide-pooling and snorkeling the reefs have always been at the top of the agenda, there (see my blogs of Nov. 6, 2014; Aug. 3, 2018; Aug. 24, 2019).  Most of the year, of course, it's fresh water activities for our family, back on the "mainland." One favorite such spot is in Yosemite Park, where the Lyell and Dana creeks come together to form the Tuolumne River in the famous Meadow.  We've had many marvelous times alongside Lyell Creek, particularly, in the campground there. 


But for most of the year, for the past 46, it's been our home-town Big Chico Creek that emerges from the Sierra Nevada foothills that my family and I have frequented.  My wife Tammy and I were married by a rented minister on the banks of the creek, whose cooling breezes comforted the volleyball and horseshoe players after the ceremony.  Our two kids ("second family," following my "first family" of two daughters) celebrated most of their birthdays in picnics with their CoHousing friends in shady groves alongside the creek.  Every 4th of July the Barnetts would host a gathering at Raspberry Hole in the creek, watermelons kept cool by the waters.  Even the hard days involved Chico Creek.  When my daughter Holly died at age 23, her mother and sister and I bicycled into the upper region of Chico Creek above the turbulent Iron Canyon, hiked a creekside trail far into the narrow canyon there, and tenderly placed some of her ashes on a sharp slope above Salmon Hole, amidst many tears.  Holly and her sister had spent many summer days swimming and sunbathing in that creek.


So when Tammy and I moved from Northern California to Southern Arizona recently (see my blog of Sept. 9, 2022), many things changed, but one did not:  I found a favorite creek at which I'm spending much time, and took our two kids there when they visited.  The interesting thing is that while of course Sabino Creek is located in the Sonoran Desert rather than the oak woodlands of the Sierra Nevada foothills, in many respects my new creek is extremely similar to my old creek.


How so, "similar"?  Well, the vegetation bordering the creek—the riparian zone—is composed here largely of Fremont Cottonwoods, Arizona Sycamores, and two species of Willow.  In Chico, the riparian zone along the creek is largely Fremont Cottonwoods, California Sycamores, several species of Willow, with White Alder thrown into the mix.  As you tromp up the creek in Chico, hopping or swimming from rock to rock, you notice territorial patrolling by the Flame Skimmer and Green Darner dragonflies—the same dragonflies that also patrol along Sabino Creek here!  And the petite Bluet Damselflies are much in evidence here, as they also are in Chico Creek.  Ditto for the insects in the creek:  water striders and water beetles, for example, as well as the larval forms of the dragonflies.


It's no surprise, upon reflection, that the creeks and their riparian zones are so similar:  whether a creek in Arizona or California, there's a relatively constantly supply of fresh water, and the wind-blown propagules of trees and shrubs spread from creek to creek to creek over long distances.  These same environmental conditions give you the startling similarity of creeks and riparian zones across the entire continent. 


But as I float on my back down a calm stretch of Sabino Creek here, gazing up at the slopes of Sabino Canyon, I see a very different sight than I would see floating down Chico Creek.  There in Chico, the canyon floor and walls featured patches of valley oak and blue oak woodlands, interspersed among thick grasslands composed of species brought by the Spaniards five centuries earlier.  Here, the dominating trees are the stately Saguaro cacti, reaching 40 feet tall with anywhere from two to a couple of dozen "arms" stretching upward around the central column.  The late spring demonstrated that these bizarre-looking plants belong to the same "Angiosperm" clade of flowering plants as our California cottonwoods and willows, when their white flowers bloom atop the arms, and develop into the sugar-rich, seed-containing fruits which the Sonoran indigenous peoples gathered at festive late summer gatherings. 


While the Saguaros dominate, the Palo Verde trees are also common, looking much more "normal" to our eyes; they are not cacti.  But the tiny leaves of the Palo Verde are sparse and soon drop; the tree can't afford the water lost by evaporation.  How do they accomplish the photosynthesis fueling growth and seed production without leaves?  Easy!  The chlorophyll that powers photosynthesis has been moved to the outer surfaces of the trunk, branches, and stems.  The trees are green all over!  And happily making sugars and proteins and DNA from the abundant Arizona sunshine, leaves be damned

And of course Sabino Canyon's slopes also feature abundant species of the smaller (than Saguaro) cacti.  Like the Saguaros, all cacti have long abandoned leaves and relocated their chlorophyl to their stems, similar to what the non-cactus Palo Verdes have done.  Some cacti have relatively flat, disc-shaped stems: the Prickly Pear species, which are effectively protected by arrays of formidable thorns.  They also are flowering plants, remember, so they have spectacular, colorful flowers on the perimeter of the flat stems, of which Tammy has taken many dozens of photos, and depicted many in her paintings.  These flowers develop into masses of high-calory carbohydrate fruits, which the indigenous peoples would also harvest and eat, in addition to the young disc stems.  (Note:  these original peoples of the Sonoran Desert were adept at methods for removing the thorns before ingestion!) 


Cylindrical stems are present in the big Barrel Cacti and the smaller Hedgehog cacti, each with many species and armored also with thorns.  But the most formidable (many would say "vicious") thorn-protected cacti are doubtless the chollas (or "choyas").  These exhibit thinner cylindrical stems, and the species of chollas vary from relatively small (the "Teddy-bear Cholla", which is anything but cuddly) to the 20-foot Staghorn cholla and "Jumping" cholla.  This latter plant produces easily-detachable segments whose plentiful thorns seem to leap onto your arms or legs or any clothing you might think would protect you, and thus make you a disperser of the clonal segments—all upon the slightest hint of contact.


So, yes:  the plants on the slopes of the canyons in which Sabino Creek and Chico Creek merrily flow are as startlingly different as the riparian zone plants and insects are startlingly similar.  What about the mammals you may encounter in the riparian and canyon slopes?  Some are found in both habitats:  pocket gophers, packrats (tho in Arizona the white-throated woodrat, instead of the dusky-footed), ground squirrels (tho here the Rock and Harris Antelope ground squirrels, rather than California's Beechey); but the very same bobcat and mt. lion prowl both canyons, as well as Raccoons and Ringtail "cats".  Surprisingly, a variety of the Eastern White-tailed deer is found in these portions of the Sonoran desert, just as the Black-tailed deer is in Chico Canyon.


Sabino Canyon also contains two rather spectacular mammals not found in California at all, tho.  A mainly arboreal member of the raccoon family common in Central and South America, the Coati Mundi, ambles throughout the upper reaches of Sabino Canyon, tho it is not commonly seen.  (My son Louis spotted one his first saunter alongside Sabino Creek; but then Lou also spotted the only Cloth of Gold cone shell I've ever seen in a Hawaiian tidepool.)  I finally evened-up with Lou on my first rock-hopping jaunt up Sabino Creek high in the canyon, where after swimming through a deep 40-foot pool in a narrow spot between sheer rock walls, I emerged, sat on a rock to rest (Hey! I'm 77 years old!), and heard a Coati foraging in a cottonwood some 20 feet away, all oblivious to any human presence in such a high spot.  He soon caught my scent some seconds after I saw him, and promptly did the only sensible thing, fleeing clumsily away from the weird, dangerous naked ape.


The other mammal in Sabino Canyon you won't find in Chico Canyon is the Javelina, or Collared Peccary.  This scruffy but amiable fellow is a New World member of the Suidae, a cousin to our domestic pig and the wild boars of the Old World.  He's only 30 to 50 pounds and not a yard tall, but he's unmistakable.  Unlike the Coati, he's comfortable around humans, and groups of a dozen or more regularly barge into our neighborhood in search of food to complement the Prickly Pear stems and Palo Verde pods found in the Sonoran proper.  (This commonly happens on mornings when the garbage containers are waiting to be picked up and emptied, a task to which the Javelinas are only too happy to contribute.) 


Birds?  Southern Arizona is famous to bird-watchers for its incredible diversity of birdlife.  Sabino Canyon is full of Gila woodpeckers, Cactus wrens, and Roadrunners, all unknown to Chico Canyon.  But you will find the occasional Phainopepla (a striking black bird with a crest and red eyes) in both canyons.  Mourning doves are common in both canyons, tho the White-winged Dove only in Sabino.


Ah, the reptiles.  The Sonoran Desert Tortoise is common here, and a very appealing fellow, but not remotely a denizen of the Sierra foothills.  Diamondback rattlesnakes are found both places, but southern Arizona is also famous for its dozen-some additional species of rattlers.  I've encountered the Ridge-nosed Rattler (Arizona's "state reptile") on one of my jaunts up Sabino Creek, tho my encounters with Diamondbacks have only been in the desert surrounding our community.  I am acutely conscious of the fact that perhaps the most elusive and fascinating Arizona reptile, the (so-called) Gila Monster clothed in dramatic orange/red and black bead-like scales, has been seen (so far) by only one Barnett:  my good wife Tammy (whose family nick-name is "Hawk-eye," and rightly so). 


Access to Sabino Canyon is dramatically different than that to Chico Canyon.  You can of course bicycle and/or hike into Chico canyon, even its upper reaches, which I often did.  But only a rough dirt/gravel road is available for vehicles, which is often closed in the rainy winters.  Sabino Canyon?  Private vehicles into the canyon are prohibited, but there is a daily open-air, electric-powered tram/shuttle which will take you on-the-hour (for a small fee; better make a reservation online) from the Visitor Center up into the Upper Canyon, the well-maintained asphalt road crossing 10 bridges over Sabino Creek as it hugs the creek all the way up.  There are nine stops on the route, and you can hop on and off at any place.  For first-time visitors to our new home, we take the ride all the way to the top, and walk the 4 miles back, a leisurely stroll which is very near the top of my favorite things.  Ray being Ray, I often stop and take a dip at water-fall-featuring spots or, really, any particularly scenic swimming hole, which tries the patience of my dear wife.  Fortunately for me, since she has taken up painting, she whiles away the time by making sketches of the flowers and scenery.


The open-air shuttle is used mainly by tourists, tho.  All the day long, the citizens of Tucson and surrounding areas walk up the road into the canyon, by the hundreds and hundreds every day.  All types of folks: Anglos, Hispanics, Asians, all types of Americans and foreign visitors, lone males and females, groups of friends young and old, and families galore.  You won't believe how many babies are pushed into the canyon in strollers by their moms and dads every day. The strollers are left on the road a mile or two in, as the families take short side trails to the always-nearby creek and set up umbrellas and picnics.  In sum, Sabino Canyon is heavily used by a complete cross-section of the citizens of the Tucson area, with nary a spot of litter ever visible. Tellingly, restrooms and trash bins are available periodically all the way into the canyon.  And because the canyon's entrance is a dozen miles from downtown Tucson, perhaps, the chaotic tents and social turmoil that, alas, is so often associated with the lamentably poorly-met challenges of homelessness are, so far, absent from Sabino Canyon. 


The availability of water in which to enjoy the creek and canyon differs between the two spots also.  There is almost always water in Big Chico Creek in Chico Canyon.  Sometimes there is too much water, and turbulent spring flows amongst the large rocks of Iron Canyon (Bear Hole (aka Bare Hole!) and Salmon Hole) claim the life of a young, over-eager but under-cautious swimmer every couple of years.  But typically it is only as Chico Creek enters the Sacramento Valley and flows through the city of Chico that the creek frequently de-waters in the summer.  But the rest of the year, it flows clear into the Sacramento River, and thence out San Francisco Bay into the Pacific.


Sabino Creek marches to the beat of a different drummer.  It sits within the Sonoran Desert, remember, an area that typically gets only 12 inches or so of rain a year—less than half what the foothills of northern California typically get.  This rainfall is split between gentle winter rains of December thru February, and the intense late summer afternoon "monsoon" rains of mid-June to mid-September.  So the creek tends to be flush during the winter and early spring (I have swum it in mid-March), but drops rapidly in the dry late spring and early summer, to stagnant pools here and there.  The "monsoon" rains come, tho, and the creek fills rapidly, permitting swimming throughout the late summer and early fall.  Then it dries up again in the fall, until the winter rains come.  So:  you have to know your creek, and be aware of the rainfall, particularly of flash floods after heavy monsoon rain days, which can be deadly.  I'm still learning, but even only being here from February to now (mid-September), I've had plenty of wonderful times.


And I confidently look forward to many more wonderful times swimming the deep pools, rock-hopping up the rough, turbulent stretches, and floating down the placid stretches of Sabino Creek in the future.  Depending on how many years I've been given, I hope to accumulate a store of heart-filling experiences in Sabino Creek winding its way down Sabino Canyon.  Who knows?  Maybe some day my wife and kids will tenderly place my ashes in this creek, and watch them swirl and spread amongst the dragonflies and past the foraging Coati Mundis as the Saguaros bear witness from the slopes.  I look forward to that happening—at the proper time.  Barnett out. 


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How our "2021 Fresh Air Tour" from California sprouted wings and led us to a new home in—the Sonoran Desert?!

Tammy relaxing at Mesa Verde


(Warning:  this is a story of how two otherwise sensible people turned their lives upside-down.  Then having done that, they proceeded to turn their upside-down lives on its head—again—and ended up somewhere even more unexpected.  Fasten your seat belts.)


Part One.  It seemed such a simple, innocuous notion as the summer of 2021 dragged on.  Tired of Northern California's past three years of summer/fall wildfires and bad air? Of the realization that the fire that destroyed Paradise in 2018—19 miles from our Chico home—was not a one-time aberration but merely the first of a predictable new summer reality?  Tired of air purifiers chugging away inside your home and donning masks most of the summer whenever you go outside?  Leave it!  Drive east from California until you find fresh air, and then camp in that glorious, deep-breathing freshness for six weeks of July and August! 


We invested a thousand dollars in camping equipment, jammed it into our all-electric Chevy Bolt, and headed east over the Sierra Nevadas for Reno, where we struggled to lucidly explain our solution to summer California wildfires to Tammy's Dad.  No matter.  The next day we resumed our eastward escape.  Halfway through Nevada's Great Basin Desert, the Air Quality Index (AQI) had begun to drop toward safe, healthy levels.  By the end of the day, as we entered Utah, we could roll the windows down and take big, deep gulps of healthy air.  "Fresh air!" became our byword as we ploughed further east out of Utah to the Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado. 


Our Wawona 6-person tent (with added vestibule providing cover for cooking or just lounging out of rain or too much sun) was our Colorado home for the next two weeks.  Fresh air every morning—and all the rest of the day!  The camp grounds were huge, sites large, and a free (hot!) shower was a pleasant five-minute walk away.  Pinyon pines and Gambel oaks surrounded us, and the ancient cliff-houses of Pre-Pueblo peoples awed and inspired.  "Monsoon" thunder storms also awed us, with incredibly dense rainfall several afternoons a week. But the new tent held up fine, and the storms cooled everything off.  We experimented and finally perfected healthy, simple meals on our two-burner Coleman stove.  Lots of walks to the surrounding mesas and mountain flanks.  And infinite quantities of—yes, fresh air. 


But Santa Fe and Georgia O'Keeffe's Ghost Ranch beckoned.  Ray had explored both with his travel-buddy Al on several trips, and had promised Tammy she'd soon see them.  So we reluctantly left Mesa Verde and made the short-day drive to a campground/RV park outside of Santa Fe, pitched the Taj Mahal of tents there amidst more Pinyon pines and now Western junipers, and soaked in the fresh air of northern New Mexico.  But here, in addition to golden sunsets dazzling us from our lawn chairs outside the tent, we had culture aplenty to enjoy.  The old Plaza in Santa Fe's historic center; the nearby St. Francis Cathedral with roots stretching to 1598; the anthropology museums on Museum Hill south of town; and most important the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum just west of the Plaza.  It was all wonderful.  Short drives took us to the Ancestral Pueblo cliff dwellings in Bandelier National Monument; the old village of Chimayo in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo range, with its cathedral dispensing healing soil; a bit further to the old village of Abiquiu, where O'Keeffe lived in the winters; and to Ghost Ranch, where the indomitable artist invented a new, iconic genre of American landscape painting—the surrounding skulls, flowers, mountains, and mesas. 


It was in the evenings, watching the sun set in glory and the stars emerge from the darkening sky above our Santa Fe campground, that it happened.  Completely unforeseen, we began to wonder: could we have more of all this than just six weeks a year?  Why not escape the drought and heat and wildfires of California—altogether?  We laughed, skeptically, as we both admitted to these weird notions.  Ridiculous.  True, our kids and my daughter from my first marriage had all left Chico.  True, Chico was still crowded with refugees (and traffic) from the 2018 Camp Fire that had destroyed Paradise.  True, Tammy had just retired from three decades of teaching, only weeks before our Fresh Air Tour began.  And the future in Northern California promised nothing but continued—expanding—occurrences of wildfires, drought, congestion, and dropping levels of water in our beloved Chico Creek two blocks from our home. 


But—ridiculous.  Tho Tammy was still in her 50s, Ray was in his mid-70's, and had solemnly vowed that our last move 12 years ago would be his last.  People in their 70's don't pick up and move to a new state, leaving friends and locales cultivated since 1976 (for Ray) and 1984 (for Tammy).  They just don't.  But the notion wouldn't die.  We were genuinely sad as we packed up the tent outside of Santa Fe.  We journeyed a day's drive north to Boulder, Colorado, where our daughter Ashlyn was in the grad program at U. of Colorado.  As we left the arid southwest of New Mexico, we heard of fires in the great forests of central and north Colorado.  We had a hint of elevated AQI.  We had a marvelous time with Ash and her partner Steven, but were glad when range anxiety about traveling over the high Rockies in our electric vehicle (and spotty distribution of recharging stations) persuaded us to return to our Southwest route to get back to California; we had become rather fond of Utah and New Mexico.  We stopped at southern Colorado's Pagosa Springs, and swam in the San Juan river bisecting the town.  We climbed up to the massive red-tinted sandstone Wilson Arch south of Moab in Utah, and stayed in Green River just beyond. The incredible Black Dragon Canyon (rocks over 250 million years old) west of Green River bowled us over. All these portions of the Southwest, so closely clustered together in easy drives, provided not just fresh air, but beauty and a distinctive landscape; yes, we had indeed become very fond of the region. 


The upshot:  during our return drive to Chico after 6 weeks of camping and enjoying the American Southwest, the notion of relocating, of beginning a new chapter in our lives, had shifted from something ridiculous and laughable, to something worth exploring seriously.  Both of us were retired, with a living income appearing in our bank account the first of every month—why not?  It was a push/pull sort of thing.  California drought, wildfires, congestion and social unrest pushing, and the Southwest's awesome (and novel) landscape, history, and culture pulling.  Returned to Chico, we had two weeks before leaving for our annual month in Hawaii.  We took a deep breath, thought it through again, then contacted a real estate agent: let's just gingerly dip into the market while we're gone.  Nothing serious, of course.  No prepping our home, no big repairs or painting.  Just informally, tentatively, see what might happen. 


We had our usual marvelous time on Maui.  Snorkeling, walking the beaches, swimming, lying in the sand learning the constellations gleaming brightly above us at night.  The Southwest grew a bit dimmer over the month.  Moving to Hawaii also seemed attractive, but the finances really, really didn't make that feasible.  Moving to New Mexico?  Only slightly less outlandish. 


The day we arrived back home from Hawaii, we received an offer for our home that would be hard to reject.  We accepted it.  Called the kids and told them we were moving to Santa Fe.  The word quickly spread around our CoHousing community.  Universally, the reaction was either a stiffly polite "Really? That's interesting" (the kids) or a stunned, stammering "Ahhh…" (the friends, who later admitted that it translated to "You guys must be out of your minds!").  We persisted.  Having received bids from moving companies to pack and move us for $14,000, we decided to do it ourselves.  The kids agreed to gather in Chico over Christmas to help us pack what we'd take with us to our new home (close of escrow was January 4).  They duly gathered: daughter Ashlyn and Steven from Boulder, son Lou and daughter Heather with our two grandkids from the Bay Area.  The evening of the first day, one of the gang tested positive for Covid.  All scattered, as per common sense and Covid protocols, leaving only Lou with us. The young fellow knew he was coming down with the disease (which he did), but was determined to pack up those books of Dad's vaunted library which were coming with us to Santa Fe (which he also did). 


Tammy did an incredible job of selling a very large portion of our belongings (our lives?) on Facebook Marketplace.  We piggy-backed on the yard sale of a neighbor.  It was still a huge, formidable job to pack up what we had determined to bring with us to Santa Fe into boxes—plates, bowls, utensils, clothes, photo albums, wall-material (photos, paintings), furniture. Und so weiter.  We threw away tons of things into the dumpsters behind schools, at least until we very nearly got arrested for doing so.  Finally the home was empty, and our belongings (our lives?) sitting in a Chico storage locker.


Exhausted, and not at all sure that we were not, in fact, "out of our minds", in early January we put our beloved (and by this time thoroughly spooked) cat Inky into her travel cage in the backseat of our rented car (no way the little Bolt was remotely large enough) and drove in three stages to Santa Fe, where we wearily unpacked our bags into the lovely home of Brenda and Kent, former Chico CoHousing friends who had moved to Santa Fe a few years previous and were about to visit grandkids in southern California.  We began to acquaint ourselves with the real estate market in our new home town.


Part Two.  To make a long and agonizing story short, Tam and I within ten days in Santa Fe realized two things.  Several snowstorms and many frigid mornings brought home the fact that Santa Fe winters were quite unlike balmy Santa Fe summers. We had moved into a distinctly colder winter climate.  Beyond that, houses in our price range were few, and you had to add 10% onto the asking price and be prepared to hand over cash promptly to even be included in the frenzied bidding for a home.  In other words: winter temperatures too low, home prices too high. 


Gulp.  Yes, we ideally should have figured this out before.  But remember:  we were in the very middle of what the Prussian von Clausewitz had described as "the fog of war."  In any enterprise of importance, you make your plans as best you can, and then when the enterprise begins and you are quickly enveloped in uncertainty and unanticipated catastrophes, you just remain nimble and imaginative and make your way boldly through the fog.  I reminded Tam and myself of General George Patton many times in the ensuing days: driving his Third Army tank corps brilliantly through the debris of war toward Berlin in December of 1944, he defied all known laws of military tactical logistics and abruptly wheeled his forces 90 degrees north to rescue 101st Airborne paratroopers facing annihilation by the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium.  He succeeded.  Then got his tanks to Berlin.  We would do the same.  We would visit and camp outside Santa Fe every summer—but we wouldn't reside there.  We would, instead, live in—in—uh…   Where the devil were we going to live? 


Our new home would be somewhere in the Southwest, clearly. We researched and pondered possibilities in New Mexico other than Santa Fe.  Up north in the countryside around Abiquiu, our much-loved Georgia O'Keeffe country? Down south in Las Cruces, a lovely university-town near the Mexican border?  In the Jemez mountains to the west of Santa Fe, close to Bandelier?  Or—how about checking out that "active retirement community" my Sierra Club friends Harold and Janet had moved to a year ago, and described with enthusiasm in their Christmas letter?  Where was that?  Oh yes: Arizona.  Hmmm. Just north of Tucson, a small burg called Oro Valley. Where the heck is Tucson?  Oh, here it is, way south in Arizona, in the middle of the Sonoran Desert, yet.  We investigated all the possibilities, both New Mexico and southern Arizona:  the winters, the water supply, the recreational opportunities, the housing market.  Southern Arizona proved especially intriguing. Tucson had been stockpiling water from the Colorado River for decades, and was flush with the stuff.  (Oro Valley hadn't, tho.)  Of course, where our friends lived, one of the Del Webb "Sun City" developments, was by definition full of old people (or at least 55 years of age, which wasn't really old).  Best of all, we discovered that Tucson and Oro Valley really did have very mild winters.  You could hardly call them "winters," in fact. 


So into the rental car goes Inky, again, 1,200 miles under her feline belt and another 500 to go to Tucson.  Two things are clear to us:  we are going to seriously investigate living in water-rich Tucson, and we aren't going to live amongst a bunch of retirees in water-dicey Sun City.  Arriving in southern Arizona, to be polite we have lunch with our friends in the Sun City community restaurant.  Food is delicious; a bright red Vermillion flycatcher flits about in the nearby trees; a tour of the shared community facilities reveals several swimming pools; ceramic studios with virtually free clay and kiln use; a watercolor studio whose artists painting that afternoon welcomed Tammy with open arms; a well-stocked woodworking shop the size of a shopping center; a stained-glass studio; a pool room with excellent tables; tennis courts galore.  But most surprising:  active, attractive, lively residents happy to show you around these facilities, not just making things but learning the ukulele or swimming or bicycling or walking around the community.  All yours to enjoy for a monthly home-owners fee of—prepare yourself—$178. 


Tammy and I return to our car after our tour.  We sit silent in the front seat, both staring straight ahead. She finally speaks.  "Well, what did you think, Ray?"  I reply, in a tentative, hoarse voice.  "I want to live here, Tam."  She turns to me quickly, her face alight.  "Me too! I never want to leave!"  So we canceled our upcoming meeting with a Tucson realtor, found a Sun City realtor and soon a home in our price range (no 10% addition required) that we really liked (and so did our kids, when they viewed its Zillow entry). We made an offer the day we toured it, and by that evening were the proud owners of a new home in sunny southern Arizona.  Three weeks later, Ray and his friend Bruce drove a rental truck stuffed with our belongings 20 straight hours from Chico to our new home, where Bruce's wife Jody was keeping Tam company.  After Bruce and Jody's departure, we stared at the ocean of boxes crammed into our new home for another two weeks, until Ashlyn arrived from Boulder, and promptly unpacked all the books Lou had packed back in Chico, which got us started. 


As of this writing, we have lived here six months, and love it more every day.  All the kids and grandkids have visited us, and approve of the new home.  We play pool, we swim, we explore the surrounding parks and trails.  We belong to the Tucson Botanical Gardens, and visit regularly. Our neighbors in Sun City, Oro Valley are wonderful, and uniformly friendly and interesting folks.  Tammy and I walk together around our new community every evening, she taking dozens of photos of the stunning sunsets.  Tam is a regular at our immediate neighborhood's Happy Hour on Friday afternoons.  In the mornings, Tam takes long exploratory walks in the community, while Ray traverses two blocks to an entrance into the surrounding Sonoran Desert, and completes "Ray and Tam's double-loop desert walk."  As a biologist, Ray is completely fascinated by the flora and fauna of the Sonoran Desert, far and away the most diverse and interesting of the four North American deserts.  Tammy has taken up painting again, and is exploring the discipline with characteristic verve and imagination (check her Instagram page).  Ray is a desert rat, and also spends a day a week exploring Sabino Creek in Sabino Canyon (google it!), where he swims and spots wildlife to his heart's content. 


So that's the story of how Tammy and Ray took a fresh air tour, which turned into a journey, as we had the eyes to see one chapter of our life together closing, and another opening. At times the journey was frightfully difficult, both physically and emotionally. We stubbornly moved forward, and amidst some stumbles kept searching until we found a place that felt right to us. Somehow we landed on our feet. We understand that this sort of journey is not for everyone.  But it worked for us, our marriage stronger by virtue of our shared struggles and decisions.  We are happy here in southern Arizona.  And yes, it is definitely a new chapter.  Come visit.  Barnett out. 



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Four Fallacies to Avoid in Evaluating Historical Figures


Guest blog by Edinburgh, UK editor and publisher Jacquetta Megarry; see note at end


Michael Brune's 22 July 2020 manifesto accusing John Muir of racism embodies four dangerous fallacies. They are not unique to the Sierra Club. Indeed, in the wake of the George Floyd's brutal death in Minneapolis in May 2020, worldwide reactions have included statue-toppling, cancelling of distinguished names and reputations, and attempts to rewrite history. The proposal to take John Muir's name off an elementary school named in his honour in San Francisco and elsewhere should be seen in this context of over-reaction to a tragic event that took place over a century after Muir's death in 1914. The proposal rests on four fallacies, which must be avoided:


1. Don't rely on a few words quoted out of context: evaluate the man's whole life.
Brune's attack relies on a few negative phrases quoted from the young Muir's unedited and unpublished journals. He ignores Muir's many other positive comments and, throughout his long life, his campaigns and travels. Later he travelled and spent time living with Native Americans, and commended their stewardship of the environment.


2. Never find somebody guilty by association.
Brune criticises John Muir for his friendship with "people like Henry Fairfield Osborn, who worked for both the conservation of nature and the conservation of the white race". Muir respected Osborn's work as a zoologist and paleontologist. Osborn's role in founding the American Eugenics Society, though, was years after Muir's death. Muir had a very wide circle of friends and colleagues; nobody is responsible for opinions other than their own.


3. Don't attribute prejudice to a person for words that became pejorative long after his death.

Fashions in language evolve over time. Words such as "negro" were at first purely descriptive, only later acquiring racist overtones. According to the Jim Crow Museum, until "black power" was coined in 1966, "negro" was how most back Americans described themselves. From the late 1980s, Jesse Jackson promoted the term African-American. Nowadays in some countries it's common to refer to people as black, in others as BME or BAME (black, asian and minority ethnic), BIPOC (black, indigenous, people of colour), and in others simply as people of colour. Before too long, any or all of these may become unacceptable as new words are adopted as "correct".


4. Beware of anachronistic judgement and woke rewriting of history.
Muir lived at a time when unthinking racism was the norm, and yet he challenged it by his words, deeds and campaigns. His radical thinking and pioneering conservation should be celebrated, not grotesquely rewritten by people who have barely studied him.


--Jacquetta Megarry is the founder of Rucksack Readers, a successful publisher of trail-handy guides to hiking paths in Ireland, England, and Scotland--including The John Muir Trail there.


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John Muir a Racist?!

John Muir a Racist?!

Scholars, Sierra Club Leaders Refute Charge

(Online at http://www.raymondbarnett.com/blog/posts/37785)

"A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes"-Mark Twain


     On July 22, 2020, Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune stunned the club by unilaterally publishing a manifesto ("Pulling Down our Monuments") accusing founder John Muir of being a racist and the Sierra Club of being complicit ever since in defending and furthering systemic racism in American and the Sierra Club itself. 

     Within hours, a chain of emails began which linked 40 or so Sierra Club members, former officers, and academic scholars who were familiar with Muir's life and writings. Prominent among the themes recurring in these emails (which are ongoing today) was the obvious ignorance of Executive Director Brune regarding John Muir.


     The first email in the chain was from former Sierra Club national president Richard Cellarius, who promptly emailed Brune that very day: "Before you further continue the cleansing of John Muir from the Sierra Club…please read and reflect on the essay by Raymond Barnett, 'John Muir: Racist or Admirer of Native Americans?' "

     That essay carefully and at length considers Muir's life and writings, and concludes that "John Muir was not a racist, but to the contrary an admirer and staunch defender of North America's Native Americans, all the while honestly portraying the terrible burden they endured during their Sierra Nevada holocaust, and its affect upon them. Isolated instances in his journals or private letters when he occasionally expresses distaste for the appearances or manner of the holocaust-scarred Sierra Nevada Native Americans cannot be taken out of the much broader context of his many expressions of admiration of the Sierra Nevada and Alaska tribes; his touching enthusiasm for Alaska's Native American life, especially; his insistence that Native Americans were fully human "brothers"; and his heated in-the-face defense of California's Native Americans to a U.S. Army Colonel involved in extirpating them."


     The preeminent Muir biographer, Dr. Donald Worster, soon published an article coming to the same conclusion:  "Muir has been dead for more than a century, but if he could speak from the grave, I can easily imagine him agreeing that systemic racism is bad and should be repudiated, for he never published a word in support of black slavery, racial segregation, the Confederacy, forced sterilization of minorities, or genocidal policies toward Native Americans."


     And the former President of The Sierra Club Foundation, civil-rights attorney Guy T. Saperstein, also corrected Brune's mis-characterization of Muir in a widely-circulated July 29 email to Brune: "I applaud your efforts to make the Sierra Club more inclusive and to reflect the diversity of America…But I am appalled at the hatchet-job attack by you and the Sierra Club Board on John Muir's legacy. Muir may have made ill-considered comments about Native Americans and blacks as a young man, but he became enlightened about both races after living with black families on his walks in the South and living with Native Americans in Alaska.  How many of his era were even open to living with different races?  He decried the unfair treatment of blacks, and he expressed understanding and appreciation for Native Americans, while denouncing how whites had abused them with alcohol…Rather than the low-life racist you and the Board portray him as, Muir was high in the ranks of enlightened men of his time. Your attack is political correctness run amuck."


     Dr. W.R. Swagerty, Director of the John Muir Center at the University of the Pacific, was also dismayed by Brune's actions.  In a widely-circulated October 27 email, he said "I am so disappointed in the Sierra Club's leadership on this…Just as we are seeing so many wonderful children and young adult illustrated books on Muir make their way into the hands of students in elementary schools and junior highs…Sierra Club officers have decided to undermine that effort…May the Club survive, but may the leadership change."


     As Muir scholar Lee Stetson (better known for three decades of live portrayal performances of Muir) has put it, "To attribute racist comments to Muir…You'd have to disregard his entire lifetime of considered thoughts and good deeds, and to turn your back on any kind of historical perspective. It's unjust and stupid, but you could do it."


     The ignorance and injustice of Brune's mis-representation of Muir outraged leaders of the British hiking community as well; quickly Rucksacks Readers founder Jacquetta Megarry published an article entitled "Should the Sierra Club Apologise for John Muir?"  "My answer to the question in the title is a resounding NO!  The anachronistic self-flagellation of the club's present leaders does nothing to serve its long-term goals. They are displaying considerable ignorance of their founder member's early life, his nuanced writings, and above all of the attitudes prevalent when he lived. They have been seduced by the modern fad for rewriting history, preferably combined with some statue-toppling and feet of clay."


     Even some members of the Sierra Club's Board of Directors were upset by Brune's wrong-headed portrayal of Muir.  From Board member Chad Hanson's essay "Who Was John Muir, Really?": "This is the John Muir who is worthy of honor and respect—the Muir who evolved beyond his upbringing and worked to protect Nature while simultaneously promoting admiration for Native American culture and speaking against racist government policies…As we join together to create a more inclusive and just environmental movement, and to bring about needed societal transformations to increase environmental protections, racial equality and social justice, defining people by the trajectory of their lives, rather than by the worst or lowest versions of themselves across the history of their experience, is going to be important. Why? Because we are going to need people to evolve, to become better, if we're going to succeed. John Muir's evolution as a person can serve as an example of this."


     In view of these thoughtful statements from a multinational group of Muir scholars, outdoors people, and Sierra Club members, officers, and former officers, it seems clearly hasty and ill-advised to expunge Muir's name from any school, park, trail, or glacier. All those quoted here agree that systemic racism exists in American society and should be corrected. But they also agree that, based on full consideration of John Muir's life and writings, "cancelling" John Muir's name is not warranted, and in fact nonsensical. Certainly, for example, the name "John Muir Elementary School" should be maintained.


    Links to complete essays, articles referenced above  (5 to 15 minutes  each):

         Worster article: https://www.californiasun.co/stories/john-muir-biographer-he-was-no-white-supremacist/ (Distinguished historian Worster's A Passion for Nature: the life of John Muir is the preeminent modern biography of Muir)

     Megarry article (includes full Stetson quote): https://www.rucsacs.com/should-the-sierra-club-apologise-for-john-muir/ (Megarry is the founder of Rucksack Readers, a successful publisher of trail-handy guides to hiking paths in Scotland, Ireland, and England). See also her short essay Four Fallacies to Avoid in Evaluating Historical Figures: http://www.raymondbarnett.com/blog/posts/38068 .

     Hanson essayhttps://johnmuirproject.org/2020/07/who-was-john-muir-really/ (Pacific Crest Trail veteran Hanson founded the John Muir Project and is a Sierra Club Board member)

     Barnett essay: http://www.raymondbarnett.com/blog/posts/37037 (Retired Biology professor at Calif. State Univ., Chico, Barnett has authored essays and a book on Muir)

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Selecting and De-Selecting Our Model Americans

The recent wave of protests over the brutality of some police to Black people, and its blooming into a wider protest over the indefensible treatment of Blacks in America and colonialism in general, has been long overdue and thrown a harsh light on a subject that America needs to confront—and resolve. 


Deciding what exactly needs to be done, however, is not something that street protests are well-equipped to do.  Toppling statues of Confederate generals and slavery advocates is one thing; but many wonder about statues of Ulysses S. Grant and prominent abolitionists (because they didn't go far enough).


Throughout the nation, committees of NGO's (Sierra Club, for example) and local governments (school boards and city councils, for example) are preparing to eliminate prominent names from their monuments and schools. Here I acknowledge the contributions of the protests and the urgent need to begin the righting of wrongs. But I also suggest criteria for these committees to consider, means to ensure that schools and monuments honor not only appropriate Americans, but that the process of making these decisions is also a source of pride and honor. 


Three criteria ought to be considered integral to that process.  First and foremost, factual accuracy and context must be assured.  America these days is rife with partisan distortions and outright lies. These should have no part in decisions of import with lasting consequences. 


Any assessment of John Muir's attitude toward Native Americans, for example, must include his fulsome and detailed praise of Alaska's tribes after much time amongst them; his long support of Indian rights activist Charles Lummis and his Sequoyah League; and particularly his actions at an 1880 San Francisco dinner party hosted by Mary and John Swett, when he got in the face of Colonel Boyce of the Indian Extermination Campaign and denounced the "mean, brutal policy" as something Boyce should be "ashamed of."


A full and representative array of factual information must be acknowledged on any matter being considered, rather than "cherry-picking" isolated episodes out of context. Let's be sure we've got the facts straight before we judge.


Secondly, we must keep proportionality in mind; the consequence should "fit" the offense.  To do this, a gradient of offense should be established.  Should the consequence be different for someone who pens an unflattering description of Blacks, than for people (in the port city of Bristol, England, for example) who transported captured Blacks in horrible conditions to the American colonies? 


Is our natural revulsion at Muir's occasional unflattering descriptions of Sierra Native Americans affected by our realization that these unfortunate people likely appeared and acted very much as he describes them? They were, after all, in the very midst of a holocaust, their people murdered by White militias, the survivors scraping a living in marginal habitats.  Muir in fact was one of the few Californians of his time to actually look closely and see their suffering. Does it matter that in nearly every instance Muir follows his descriptions with praise of their positive accomplishments, and sometimes a reminder that all men are brothers?


In judging offenses and consequences, an offense at the low end of the scale might have the consequence of a prominent plaque at a site acknowledging the offense and its context forthrightly; an offense at the other end of the scale might merit stripping the name of the individual from the site altogether.  And of course, many consequences between these extremes can be devised.


Thirdly, we should consider whether relatively minor offenses might be balanced by signal achievements in other, positive areas.  I have read that U.S. Grant fell in love and married a women who owned slaves. As we judge this blemish, should we take into account that General Grant was instrumental in the victory of the North in the Civil War which ended formal slavery? Or that Grant as President was vigorous in his prosecution of the Ku Klux Klan throughout the South after the war?  Are these contributions perhaps more important than the offense of a slave-owning wife? 


We must remember: this is not about finding saints and casting aside as fatally flawed everyone who falls short.  Most of us have done some things we're not proud of. But we don't make a career of those shameful acts. Is it appropriate to honor decent, high-achieving folks in spite of relatively minor blemishes? Might not that be more real and inspiring than demanding sainthood? 


Every committee of people making these judgements will haves its own way of going about it. But I suggest that these three criteria be carefully considered. Selecting—and de-selecting—our models and heroes is serious work. And so we must have serious, thoughtful people doing that, people experienced in making graded judgments about their fellow Americans. 

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John Muir: Racist or Admirer of Native Americans ?

"Did you know that John Muir was a racist against Native Americans?"


The question took my old college roommate by surprise, at the end of a human development class he was teaching at Tufts University, in which Muir had been mentioned. It certainly caught me by surprise when he relayed the incident. I had read the biographies of Muir, as well as his books and journal entries, for my 2016 book about him - - without encountering such a charge.


Then I discovered a 2017 New York Times article which detailed genocide of California Native Americans in the Sierra Nevada. "Muir's view of Indians is depressing and painfully devoid of empathy," the article claimed. "The Indians he saw on trails struck him as filthy." Somehow, it seemed to suggest, Muir was sympathetic to, possibly a contributor to the mistreatment of the Native Americans.


Soon I had first-hand experience of the notion. While donating a copy of my book (Earth Wisdom: John Muir, accidental Taoist, charts humanity's only future on a changing planet) to a library, the Native-American receptionist looked up from the book in her hands, with Muir's photo on its cover. "He said we were an ugly people," she solemnly pronounced. As I stood gaping at her, she rose and led me to a nearby table, where two books on the California genocide were prominently displayed. And nodded knowingly to me.


Puzzled, I soon returned to the original sources to investigate the charges. Here's what I found. We'll consider a letter from an acquaintance of Muir's in which his attitude to Native Americans -- and actions expressing that attitude -- are plainly described. And we'll look at Muir's intimate, spontaneous thoughts expressed in his journals as he encounters Native Americans: in the Sierra Nevada in 1869 and in Alaska in 1879. Then you can decide for yourself whether John Muir was a racist against Native Americans.


First, the letter. Several months after his return from his first trip to Alaska in 1879, Muir was at a dinner party in the San Francisco home of John and Mary Swett, one of several guests. John Swett was the state Superintendent of Schools, and Muir had stayed in the family's attic rooms during several winters, "scribbling" about his year's outdoor adventures (and becoming a great favorite of the Swett children). Among that April, 1880 night's guests was an officer involved in the U.S. Army's "Indian extermination" campaign then occurring. The letter quoted here was written a few days after by Mary Swett, to her friend Louie Strentzel, who would marry Muir soon.


"He (Muir) not only excels in argument, but always takes the highest ground - - is always on the right side. He told Colonel Boyce the other night that Boyce's position was that of a champion for a mean, brutal policy. It was with regard to Indian extermination, and that Boyce would be ashamed to carry it with one Indian in personal conflict.... Further, Muir is so truthful that he not only will never embellish sketch or word-picture by any imaginary addition, but even retains every unsightly feature lest his picture should not be true." (Barnett boldface)

This revealing letter not only points to Muir's championing of Native Americans and his bold, in-your-face opposition to their mistreatment, but also hints at how the misperception of Muir's racism might arise. Critical to a proper understanding of what Muir saw and unflinchingly described in the Sierra Nevada of 1869 is an awareness that the Native Americans he encountered were experiencing the first generation of a holocaust that had destroyed their traditional culture and way of life.


The Spanish had begun the holocaust along the California Coast in the 1700s with the establishment of their Missions and their subjugation of the coastal Native Americans to serfdom on the newly appropriated Mission lands. The foothill and mountain tribes, though, were largely spared the theft of their homelands and the destruction of their way of life. Then gold was discovered in 1848, and as the Anglo-american and Chinese prospectors swarmed over the foothills, conflict arose with the Native Americans in those lands, who quite understandably resisted the theft of their homelands and the murder of those who protested.


The Mariposa Battalion, a band of armed vigilante Indian-hunters, rode into Yosemite Valley in the late winter of 1851, burning the homes and food stocks of the Native Americans there, and murdering the males they could find. In the decade and a half until the young Muir arrived in California, these scenes were repeated throughout the Sierra Nevada. The Native Americans were brutally expelled from their homelands, and relegated by the usurping Anglo-americans to marginalized areas unwanted by the new conquerors. The hunting and foraging resources that formerly sustained them were denied to them, or grudgingly tolerated if no Anglo-americans wanted the areas.


The Native Americans had no standing in the "laws" of the invaders. Murder of the males and rape of the women, as well as kidnapping of the youths for servants, was widespread and without recourse to the victims. So when the young Muir drives a herd of sheep into Tuolumne Meadow in the summer of 1869, the Native Americans he encounters are in the very midst of a holocaust that has utterly destroyed their way of life and banished them from their homes and hunting-gathering lands.


Is it to be wondered that Muir, who in Mary Swett's testimony "is so truthful that he not only will never embellish sketch or word-picture by any imaginary addition, but even retains every unsightly feature lest his picture should not be true," paints a "depressing" picture of the Native Americans he encounters there? Is there any way he could truthfully describe a happy, handsome people full of vitality and enjoying their lives?


The exceptional thing about Muir's depiction of the Sierra Nevada Native Americans he encounters in 1869 is how often he insists on crediting them with admirable traits, how persistently he compares their culture favorably above those of his fellow Anglo-americans, how often he reminds himself (and his future readers) that these struggling people are still "fellow beings" of Muir and his kind, how they in fact are, still, their "brothers."


And most importantly, John Muir was perhaps the only Anglo-american at this time to actually see the Native Americans of California, to look closely at them, to honestly observe and describe them, and to wonder what was going on with them. Considering that the Native Americans of California's Sierra Nevada were experiencing the first generation of a holocaust that had destroyed a way of life thousands of years old, it is not remarkable that what Muir saw was often jarring, unsightly, depressing, and sad. He saw it and described it, always accepting and declaring that these were human beings he was observing, and that there were aspects of their culture he found admirable. Their humanity was never in doubt - - in his eyes, at least.


Let's listen first to excerpts from his 1869 journals (later published as My First Summer in the Sierra; pages indicated are from the Modern Library 2003 edition). These excerpts will be uncomfortable to all of us, in places. But please note how he admires much about the Native Americans and insists on their humanity, even as he observes their - - to him -- puzzling sadness and dishevelment.


"One of the Indians from Brown's Flat got right into the middle of the camp this morning, unobserved. I was seated on a stone, looking over my notes and sketches, and happened to look up, was startled to see him standing grim and silent within a few steps of me, as motionless and weather-stained as an old tree stump that had stood there for centuries. All Indians seem to have learned this wonderful way of walking unseen, making themselves invisible.


"How many centuries Indians have roamed these woods nobody knows, probably a great many, extending far beyond the time that Columbus touched our shores, and it seems strange that heavier marks have not been made. Indians walk softly and hurt the landscape hardly more than the birds and squirrells ... their more enduring monuments, excepting those wrought on the forests by the fires they made to improve their hunting grounds, vanish in a few centuries.

"How different are most of those (affects) of the white man, especially on the lower gold region... These are the white man's marks made in a few feverish years, to say nothing of mills, fields, villages, scattered hundreds of miles along the flank of the (Sierra Nevada) Range. Long will it be ere these marks are effaced..." (p. 71, 73f)


"We had another visitor from Brown's Flat today, an old Indian woman with a basket on her back. Like our first caller from the village, she got fairly into camp and was standing in plain view when discovered. Her dress was calico rags, far from clean. In every way she seemed sadly unlike Nature's neat well-dressed animals, though living like them on the bounty of the wilderness. Strange that mankind alone is dirty" (p. 78)

Later, lamenting his reliance on bread in his diet, Muir again admires a Native American trait and laments its lack in Anglo Americans: "Like the Indians, we ought to know how to get the starch out of fern and saxifrage stalks, lily bulbs, pine bark, etc. Our (white folks') education has been sadly neglected." (104, 06)


"Soon after my return to camp we received a visit from an Indian come to hunt deer. One that he had killed a short distance from here he was carrying on his back, its legs tied together in an ornamental bunch on his forehead. Throwing down his burden, he gazed stolidly for a few minutes in silent Indian fashion, then cut off eight or ten pounds of venison for us, and begged a little of everything he saw or could think of - - flour, bread, sugar, tobacco, whiskey, needles. We gave a fair price for the meat in flour and sugar and added a few needles. A strangely dirty and irregular life these dark-eyed, dark-haired, half-happy savages lead in this clean wilderness - - starvation and abundance, deathlike calm, indolence, and admirable, indefatigable action succeeding each other in stormy rhythm like winter and summer." (p. 277f).

Approaching Mono Pass:

"I found the blue arctic daisy and purple-flowered bryanthus, the mountain's own darlings, gentle mountaineers face to face with the sky, kept safe and warm by a thousand miracles, seeming always the finer and purer the wilder and stormier their homes. In this fine company sauntering enchanted, taking no need of time, I at length entered the gate of the pass ...


"Just then I was startled by a lot of queer, hairy, muffled creatures coming shuffling, shambling, wallowing toward me as if they had no bones in their bodies... What a picture they made contrasted with the others (flowers, birds, snowy banks) I had just been admiring. When I came up to them, I found that they were only a band of Indians from Mono on their way to Yosemite for a load of acorns. They were wrapped in blankets made of the skins of sage-rabbits. The dirt on some of the faces seemed almost old enough and thick enough to have a geological significance. I tried to pass them without stopping, but they wouldn't let me; forming a dismal circle about me, I was closely besieged while they begged whiskey or tobacco, and it was hard to convince them that I hadn't any. How glad I was to get away from the gray, grim crowd and see them vanish down the trail! Yet it seems sad to feel such desperate repulsion from one's fellow beings. To prefer the society of squirrels and woodchucks to that of our species must surely be unnatura... I must wish them Godspeed, and try to pray and sing with (the poet) Burns, 'It's coming yet, for all that, that man to man, the world over, shall brothers be for all that.'" (293ff)

Muir descends to the foot of the canyon and observes the women of the band gathering wild rye grain.

"A fine squirrelish employment this wild grain gathering seems, and the women were evidently enjoying it, laughing and chattering...Perhaps if I knew them better I should like them better." (303f) (Barnett boldface)

So - - the first phase of the development of Muir's views of Native Americans: the Sierra Nevada, 1869. Sharp, clear, true, honest. But realizing he was missing something. "Perhaps if I knew them better, I should like them better." Are these the views of a racist? We see Muir admiring Native American culture often, even as he contrasts and criticizes his fellow Anglo-americans. We see Muir presenting honest descriptions of Native Americans in the midst of a holocaust, and upon occasion expressing distaste for their disheveled appearance and puzzling behavior. Does this make Muir a racist? I think not, when the full picture of his 1869 summer in the Sierra Nevada is considered. But of course you can make up your own mind, based on the evidence here.


If we can fault Muir for anything in 1869, it was for not realizing, or caring to understand, the historical circumstances that had led to what he observed and recorded. How we yearn to hear Muir say, "A strangely dirty and irregular life these dark-eyed, dark-haired, half-happy savages lead in this clean wilderness -- starvation and abundance, deathlike calm, indolence, and admirable, indefatigable action succeeding each other in stormy rhythm like winter and summer. But of course, these are a once-proud and happy people now in the midst of a shattering holocaust brought on by our brutal Anglo-american theft of their ancient land and murder of their people. Could we survive such a catastrophe? Could we look well-kept in such circumstances?"


But no; Muir does not attain this perspective, at least not in 1869. He was young, and had spent his first months in California as a solitary shepherd in the valley below. That is to say, he was incredibly ignorant of the history of California and the tragic drama still playing out between its holocaust-shattered Native Americans and his fellow Anglo-americans.

And certainly Muir would not have been thinking about how his observations on their appearances might be hurtful to these Native Americans' future descendants reading his words. So Muir was ignorant, and thoughtless of feelings, in some of these 1869 remarks. But surely that does not make him a racist, nor negate his frequent admiration of the Native American ways and his insistence on their being his fellow brothers.


Yet the Sierra Nevada in 1869 is not the whole picture, for Muir. Our judgment as to his purported racism has more to be considered. Much will change when he travels to Alaska in 1879. He is a decade older, and no longer so blithely ignorant. And the Native-American culture he encounters there is pre-holocaust. He spends more time with them, and experiences their culture before it is shattered.


A mere dozen years after America's purchase of Alaska from Russia, Muir made the first of five trips to that raw, young land, in quest of the passion of his life: glaciers! He took a commercial steamer from Seattle as far up the Alaska coast as it went (the rough village of Wrangell), hired a Tlingkit canoe and four paddlers (from different tribes, all), and explored the remote coast north for 400 miles, until the winter storms beat him back. With him was a Presbyterian minister, S. Hall Young, who stopped at dozens of Native American villages to preach and offer education to their youths. Muir came to know his paddlers very well, and the people of the villages at which they stopped.


Just as his experiences with the Native Americans of the Sierra Nevada were profoundly influenced by the status of their culture -- shattered, in that instanceâ€"so his experiences with Alaska's Native Americans were critically influenced by the status of their culture. While the early Russian fur traders had brought diseases of "civilization" to the tribes, with resulting epidemics, and while there were some early gold seekers and missionaries there in 1879, by and large Alaska's Native Americans had not yet experienced the holocaust that had afflicted the Sierra Nevada tribes. (That would come, with the Klondike gold rush of 1896.) Their villages were still extant, for the most part, with the populations pursuing their ancient social economies. Pre-holocaust, then, giving Muir the opportunity to observe and record a Native American culture reasonably similar to what it had been for thousands of years.


Let's listen to what he says of them in his journals (later published in Travels in Alaska; pages refer to the 2002 Modern Library edition).

"The (Indian) women, seated on the steps and platform of the traders' shops (in Wrangell village), could hardly be called loafers, for they had berries to sell, basketfuls of huckleberries, large yellow salmon-berries, and bog raspberries that looked wondrous fresh and clean amid the surrounding squalor [ie., the traders' shops]. After patiently waiting for purchasers until hungry, they ate what they could not sell, and went away to gather more.


"As the day advances, a fleet of canoes may be seen along the shore, all fashioned alike, high and long beak-like prows and sterns, with lines as fine as those of the breast of a duck. What the mustang is to the Mexican vaquero, the canoe is to these coast Indians. They skim along the shores to fish and hunt and trade, or merely to visit their neighbors, for they are sociable, and have family pride remarkably well developed, meeting often to inquire after each other's health, attend potlaches and dances, and gossip concerning coming marriages, births, deaths, etc. Others seem to sail for the pure pleasure of the thing, their canoes decorated with handfuls of the tall purple epilobium... "


"A little excursion to one of the best huckleberry-fields adjacent to Wrangell…In the afternoon, when the baskets were full, all started back to the camp-ground. I was the first to arrive at camp. The rest of the party came in shortly afterwards, singing and humming like heavy-laden bees. It was interesting to note how kindly they held out handfuls of the best berries to the little girl (remaining at camp), who welcomed them all in succession with smiles and merry words that I did not understand. But there was no mistaking the kindliness and serene good nature." (24-27)

Muir visited a "deserted Stickeen village" up the coast from Wrangell, quite possibly a settlement that had been wiped out by disease (brought by Russians or Americans) some years before. "The magnitude of the ruins and the excellence of the workmanship manifest in them was astonishing as belonging to Indians. For example, the first dwelling we visited was about forty feet square, with walls built of planks two feet wide and six inches thick. The ridgepole of yellow cypress was two feet in diameter, forty feet long, and as round and true as if it had been turned in a lathe. The nibble marks of the stone adze were still visible of the wall planks had evidently been hewn out of a whole log, and must have required sturdy deliberation as well as skill. Their geometrical truthfulness was admirable. With the same tools not one in a thousand of our skilled mechanics could do as good work. Compared with it, the bravest work of civilized backwoodsmen is feeble and bungling. The completeness of form, finish, and proportion of these timbers suggested skill of a wild and positive kind."(56) ("Wild" is always a compliment for Muir.)


As in the Sierra Nevada in 1869, Muir contrasts the admirable Native American ways with that of his Anglo-american colleagues, in this case early gold-seekers: "The (miners') taverns along the Cassiar gold trail were the worst I had ever seen, rough shacks with dirt floors, dirt roofs and rough meals. (Note that Muir still finds "dirt" distasteful, whether associated with Anglo-americans or Native Americans.) The meals are all alike - - a potato, a slice of something like bacon, some gray stuff called bread, and a cup of muddy, semi-liquid coffee like that which the California miners call 'slickens' or 'slumgullion.' The bread was terrible and sinful. How the Lord's good wheat could be made into stuff so mysteriously bad is past finding out. The very devil, it would seem, in wicked anger and ingenuity, had been the baker." (68f)


At the end of this lengthy walking tour of the gold mine region: "We arrived at Telegraph Creek, the end of my two-hundred mile walk, about noon. After luncheon I went on down the river to Glenora in a fine canoe owned and manned by Kitty, a stout, intelligent-looking Indian woman, who charged her passengers a dollar for the fifteen-mile trip. Her crew was four Indian paddlers. In the rapids she also plied the paddle, with stout, telling strokes, and a keen-eyed old man, probably her husband, sat high in the stern and steered. All seemed exhilarated as we shot down through the narrow gorge on the rushing, roaring, throttled river, paddling all the more vigorously the faster the speed of the stream, to hold good steering way. The canoe danced lightly amid gray surges and spray as if alive and enthusiastically enjoying the adventure.... In unskillful hands the frail dugout would surely have been wrecked or upset." (69f)


Back on the coast after another several hundred miles by canoe with their Stickeen, Chilcat, and Sitka Native-American paddlers, Muir records this gathering in his journal: "I greatly enjoyed the Indians' camp-fire talk this evening on their ancient customs, how they were taught by their parents ere the whites came among them, their religion, ideas connected with the next world, the stars, plants, the behavior and language of animals under different circumstances, manner of getting a living, etc. When our talk was interrupted by the howling of a wolf on the opposite side of the strait, Kadachan (one of his paddlers) puzzled the minister (Young) with the question 'Have wolves souls?' The Indians believe that they have, giving as foundation for their belief that they are wise creatures who know how to catch seals and salmon by swimming slyly upon them with their heads hidden in a mouthful of grass."(94)


The chieftains of the Native-American groups Muir and Young encountered were almost always highly impressive, in Muir's estimation. Here is his description of remarks by a Chilcat chief following a sermon by Rev. Young offering to educate the tribe's children: "At the last meeting an old white-haired shaman of grave and venerable aspect, with a high wrinkled forehead, big, strong Roman nose and light-colored skin, slowly and with great dignity arose and spoke for the first time:


" 'I am an old man,' he said, 'but I am glad to listen to those strange things you tell, and they may well be true, for what is more wonderful than the flight of birds in the air? I remember the first white man I ever saw. Since that long, long-ago time I have seen many, but never until now have I ever truly known and felt a white man's heart. All the white men I have heretofore met wanted to get something from us. They wanted furs and they wished to pay for them as small a price as possible. They all seemed to be seeking their own good - - not our good. I might say that thorough all my long life I have never until now heard a white man speak. It has always seemed to me while trying to speak to traders and those seeking gold-mines that it was like speaking to a person across a broad stream that was running fast over stones and making so loud a noise that scarce a single word could be heard. But now, for the first time, the Indian and the white man are on the same side of the river, eye to eye, heart to heart. I have always loved my people. I have taught them and ministered to them as well as I could. Hereafter, I will keep silent and listen to the good words of the missionaries, who know God and the places we go to when we die so much better than I do.' " (129f)

Towards the end of his trip, Muir sums up his experiences among his men and in the dozens of villages he visited:

"The most striking characteristic of these people is their serene dignity in circumstances that to us would be novel and embarrassing. Even the little children behave with natural dignity, come to the white men when called, and restrain their wonder at the strange prayers, hymn-singing, etc. This evening an old woman fell asleep in the meeting and began to snore; and though both old and young were shaking with suppressed mirth, they evidently took great pains to conceal it. It seems wonderful to me that these so-called savages can make one feel at home in their families. In good breeding, intelligence, and skill in accomplishing whatever they try to do with tools, they seem to me to rank above most of our uneducated white laborers. I have never yet seen a child ill-used, even to the extent of an angry word. Scolding, so common a curse in civilization, is not known here at all. On the contrary the young are fondly indulged without being spoiled." (104f) (Barnett boldface and italics)

It is shortly after his return from this trip that Muir confronts the Colonel involved in California's "Indian Extermination" campaign at John and Mary Swett's dinner party (see above), barking to his face that the soldier was engaged in a "mean and brutal policy," that he should be "ashamed to carry it."


This is the evidence, then. John Muir a racist against the Native Americans of Alaska or the Sierra Nevada? I think not. His honesty in portraying the appearances and manners of the Sierra Nevada tribes in the midst of their holocaust might give the impression of racism to those who know little of Muir or what the Native Americans were experiencing. But when Muir's thoughts and actions are more fully known, it is clear.


John Muir was not a racist, but to the contrary an admirer and staunch defender of North America's Native Americans, all the while honestly portraying the terrible burden they endured during their Sierra Nevada holocaust, and its affect upon them. Isolated instances in his journals or private letters when he occasionally expresses distaste for the appearances or manner of the holocaust-scarred Sierra Nevada Native Americans cannot be taken out of the much broader context of his many expressions of admiration of the Sierra Nevada and Alaska tribes; his touching enthusiasm for Alaska's Native American life, especially; his insistence that Native Americans were fully human "brothers;" and his heated in-the-face defense of California's Native Americans to a U.S. Army Colonel involved in exterpating them.


His stance is all the more striking by virtue of its rarity at the time. In 1869, he was virtually alone among public figures in his insistence of the admirable qualities of Native American culture, and of that people's right to be considered as fellow humans, "brothers" even. In 1879, he had been joined by only one other public figure, Helen Hunt Jackson, an Easterner whose sympathy and understanding of the great injustices perpetrated on California's original inhabitants led to her 1881 book, A Century of Dishonor. When the book, sent to every member of the U.S. Congress, was overwhelmingly ignored, Jackson recast her "message" in the form of a popular novel, 1884's Ramona, written in a frenzy by the dying Jackson.


This book was a great success financially, spawning more than half a century of "Ramona Festivals" in southern California - - but for all the wrong reasons. The plight and injustices of the southern California Native Americans depicted in the novel were shrugged off by the reading public, which instead was entranced by the romance of the Californio culture of Spanish haciendas and ranches during the 1820s and 1830s (the object of the early 20th century festivals). Considering Ramona a failure, Jackson died in San Francisco the year after the novel's publication, on the very night that Muir called upon her home there to inquire after her health.


Muir and Jackson were joined by only one other Anglo-american in the late 19th century who spoke up for California's Native Americans. In 1885, the year that Jackson died, a young Harvard graduate named Charles Lummis arrived in Los Angeles (by foot, from Chicago). He promptly founded successful magazines (Land of Sunshine, then Out West) celebrating the Southwest (a term he coined). In both his magazines and frequent lawsuits, Lummis sought to protect the region's Native Americans, and initiated programs to provide education and practical skills for their youths. Muir was a constant contributor of funds to these endeavors, and you can find Muir's signature in the visitors' book of Lummis' preserved home, El Alisal, north of today's downtown Los Angeles, in Montecito Heights.


A century on, many of California's Native Americans still struggle with the legacy of the holocaust their people endured. But many have parlayed their courage and intelligence to successfully establish themselves in the Anglo-american culture which took over their old homeland, and they have prospered. To all of these descendants of a time of terrible injustice and tragedy, and in recognition of the too-rare admiration and respect extended to them by John Muir, Helen Hunt Jackson, and Charles Lummis, this essay is respectfully dedicated.


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Through the Heart of the South: John Muir's 1867 Thousand Mile Walk

(Note: when I published my book on John Muir (Earth Wisdom) in 2016, little did I imagine he might ever stand accused of racism. When I heard of such an accusation with respect to Native Americans, I re-read the numerous biographies and all his journal entries I had consulted for my 2016 book. The results of that investigation (John Muir: Racist or Admirer of Native Americans?) were presented in a talk to the 2018 History Conference of the Eastern Sierra Interpretive Association, published as blogs on my website on January 23 and 24 of 2019, and later in the John Muir Exhibit of the Sierra Club website (sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/life/racist-or-admirer-of-native-americans-raymond-bennett.aspx).

    The same accusation of racism, now directed with respect to Blacks, especially as revealed on Muir's 1867 journey through the war-shattered South, has emerged recently.  I am now returning to the source materials once again to thoroughly and carefully investigate this new charge.  Meanwhile, my 2016 book's chapter on that journey, presented below, can serve as an initial overview of the topic, since it treats of his experiences with both Blacks and Whites.)


When in September of 1867 he scribbled "John Muir, Earth-Planet, Universe" on the opening page of his journal, Muir clearly saw his upcoming walk from Indiana to Florida's Gulf of Mexico as something special.  Even so, he could not have imagined it would spark the creation of a new way of looking at the world, a stance that a century later would provide the best hope for saving human civilization from the gravest threat of its entire history on the planet.


Muir had dropped out of the University of Wisconsin after two years, fascinated with botany and geology, but restless.  He had earlier spent months "botanizing" in Canada (prompting some in later years to accuse him of dodging the Civil War draft, a charge stoutly denied by others).  To keep himself in bread during his botanical studies, he had progressed from threshing wheat by hand in the summers, at which his strength and endurance were remarkable, to working in the country's largest carriage manufacturer, in Indianapolis. 


At this last enterprise his skill and sharp suggestions on efficiency had earned him rapid promotion and the offer of a partnership—until tragedy struck.  While tightening a machine belt with a file, the point of the file flipped and pierced his right eye, robbing him of his sight (as well as a considerable amount of aqueous humor, which he watched puddle in his palm, horrified, with his remaining eye).  Muir feared he would be blind in the injured eye, and resolved during his recuperation that he would waste no more time "on the inventions of man, and devote myself to the inventions of God," by which he meant God's creation of the natural world.


To Muir's surprise and relief, most of the sight of his eye returned within several months.  His resolve to devote himself wholeheartedly to exploring God's creation was unchanged, however, and he decided to introduce himself to the plants of the southern U.S. and then to press on to the Amazon basin.  On the second day of September, 1867, Muir walked across the bridge spanning the Ohio River from Jeffersonville, Indiana to Louisville, Kentucky, "joyful and free," he tells us in his journal.  He traversed the city without speaking a word to anyone, and on the southern outskirts spread a map before him.  "My plan was simply to push on in a general southward direction by the wildest, leafiest, and least trodden way I could find, promising the greatest extent of virgin forest…rejoicing in splendid visions of pines and palms and tropic flowers in glorious array."


Thus began a walk which would cover 1,000 miles, through Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, ending two months later with Muir flat on his back with malaria for three further months in a sawmill outside the Gulf hamlet of  Cedar Keys, Florida.  Muir traveled remarkably light: his small shoulder bag contained (beside his journal) a towel, soap, comb, brush, single change of underwear, map of the South, three slim books (Burns' Poetry, Milton's Paradise Lost, the New Testament) and one thick one (Wood's Botany, for keying out plants).  He also carried a plant press on his back, a light device of straps, wood slats, and rough-paper sheets with which to flatten and dry the many plants he collected, and periodically sent to his brother in Wisconsin for keeping. 


Though this luggage seems singularly light to us, in fact it was more than Muir would carry on his subsequent rambles throughout the length of California's Sierra Nevada mountains, where his ever-present journal, a box of matches, and several loaves of bread typically comprised his entire load, disdaining even a blanket or overcoat.


True to his resolve to immerse himself in the forests of the South, Muir avoided towns, passing through only 22 his entire journey.  He spent roughly half his nights indoors, in the attics of taverns or spare rooms of scattered farmhouses.  The remainder of his nights were spent on the ground under the stars, with mosquitoes buzzing around him and beetles scurrying over his limbs.  Food was many times given freely to him, usually cornbread and bacon, sometimes after suspicious questioning.    But hunger was never far from Muir, and often enough desperately present.  He averaged about 25 miles per day, though one day in Georgia, he writes, he "traveled to-day more than forty miles without dinner (lunch) or supper.  No family would receive me, so I had to push on to Augusta."


Muir's principal object in his thousand-mile walk was encountering the forests and plants of the South.  Here he was not disappointed.  "Far the grandest of all Kentucky plants are her noble oaks," he proclaimed early on. "They are the master existences of her exuberant forests. Here is the Eden, the paradise of oaks."


In the Cumberland mountains of Tennessee, Muir observes "There is nothing more eloquent in Nature than a mountain stream, and this is the first I ever saw. Its banks are luxuriantly peopled with rare and lovely flowers and overarching trees, making one of Nature's coolest and most hospitable places. Every tree, every flower, every ripple and eddy of this lovely stream seemed solemnly to feel the presence of the great Creator…Near this steam I spent some joyous time in a grand rock-dwelling full of mosses, birds, and flowers. Most heavenly place I ever entered." 


It was in Florida that Muir most anticipated encountering new, exotic subtropical plants.  He saw his first palmetto in a grassy opening on the edge of swampy woods.  "A plain gray shaft, round as a broom-handle, and a crown of varnished channeled leaves…whether rocking and rustling in the wind or poised thoughtful and calm in the sunshine, it has a power of expression not excelled by any plant high or low that I have met in my whole walk thus far…They tell us that plants are perishable, soulless creatures, that only man is immortal, etc.; but this, I think, is something that we know very nearly nothing about. Anyhow, this palm was indescribably impressive and told me grander things than I ever got from human priest."


This first of Muir's lifetime of "saunters" was unusual in that he regularly encountered people throughout the journey.  His descriptions of the people of the South, Black and White, are perceptive and entertaining, and give A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf, his journal entries assembled by his Sierra Club friend William Frederic Bade after Muir's death, a different feel than Muir's other writings, as well as a valuable rendering of the South in the near aftermath of the Civil War. 


Muir made this walk through the heart of the South a scant two years after the cessation of formal hostilities.  The region remained wracked by the war, the economy shattered, men solitary and in bands roaming the countryside murdering travelers for food and whatever money they might carry.  Repeatedly Muir was warned by those he encountered, being assured that his life was in jeopardy.  And repeatedly Muir ignored the good advice, and set off for yet another day through the ravaged countryside.  The only danger that Muir did not face and survive was malaria, but that felled him only after he had reached the Gulf. 


Early in the trip, on a level sandstone plateau amongst desolate fields in the Cumberland mountains, Muir towards sundown came in sight of ten men watching his progress closely.  "They all were mounted on rather scrawny horses, and all wore long hair hanging down on their shoulders.  Evidently they belonged to the most irreclaimable of the guerrilla bands who, long accustomed to plunder, deplored the coming of peace…Without halting even for a moment, I advanced rapidly with long strides as though I intended to walk through the midst of them.  When I got within a rod or so I looked up in their faces and smilingly bade them 'Howdy.'  Stopping never an instant, I turned to one side and walked around them to get on the road again, and kept on without venturing to look back or betray the slightest fear of being robbed…I was not followed, however, probably because the plants projecting from my plant press made them believe that I was a poor herb doctor."


Muir's closest brush with violence came near the end of his trip, in Florida.  "In a lonely, swampy place in the woods, I met a large, muscular, brawny young negro, who eyed me with glaring, wistful curiosity…He inquired where I came from, where I was going, and what brought me to such a wild country, where I was liable to be robbed, and perhaps killed.  'Oh, I am not afraid of any one robbing me,' I said, 'for I don't carry anything worth stealing.'  'Yes,' said he, 'but you can't travel without money.' 


"I started to walk on, but he blocked my way.  Then I noticed that he was trembling, and it flashed upon me all at once that he was thinking of knocking me down in order to rob me.  After glaring at my pockets as if searching for weapons, he stammered in a quavering voice 'Do you carry shooting-irons?'  His motives, which I ought to have noted sooner, now were apparent to me.  Though I had no pistol, I instinctively threw my hand back to my pistol pocket and, with my eyes fixed on his, I marched up close to him and said, 'I allow people to find out if I am armed or not.'  Then he quailed, stepped aside, and allowed me to pass, for fear of being shot.  This was evidently a narrow escape."


Muir navigated the inherent dangers of solitary travel in the immediate post-war South through luck, bravado, and a strict prohibition of camp fires in his many nights in the open, so as not to advertise his presence to "prowling mischief makers."  He was conscientious, though, to note the numerous instances of generosity and kindness to him by both Whites and Blacks.  On 6 September, Muir "Overtook an old negro driving an ox team. Rode with him a few miles and had some interesting chat concerning war, wild fruits of the woods, et cetera…I asked him if he would like a renewal of these sad war times, when his flexible face suddenly calmed, and he said with intense earnestness, 'Oh, Lo'd, want no mo wa, Lo'd no.'  Many of these Kentucky negroes are shrewd and intelligent, and when warmed upon a subject that interests them, are eloquent in no mean degree."


Regarding the White folks he met, Muir praises their courtesy but does not overlook the common prejudice towards Blacks.  He comments on "that open, unconstrained cordiality which is characteristic of the better class of Southern people." In Georgia, he "was received at the house of Dr. Perkins…Heard long recitals of war happenings, discussion of the slave question, and Northern politics; a thoroughly characteristic Southern family, refined in manners and kind, but immovably prejudiced on everything connected with slavery."


Despite the bleakness of the landscape and society, Muir was ever ready to appreciate the humor in a situation.  In the Cumberland mountains, after much back-and-forth amongst "roads (which) never seem to proceed with any fixed purpose, but wander as if lost," Muir "reached the house of a negro driver, with whom I put up for the night. Received a good deal of knowledge which may be of use should I ever be a negro teamster."


And "In Murphy (North Carolina) I was hailed by the sheriff who could not determine by my colors and rigging to what country or craft I belonged. Since the war, every other stranger in these lonely parts is supposed to be a criminal, and all are objects of curiosity or apprehensive concern. After a few minutes' conversation with this chief man of Murphy I was pronounced harmless, and invited to his house, where for the first time since leaving home I found a house decked with flowers and vines, clean within and without, and stamped with the comforts of culture and refinement in all its arrangements."


Accustomed as he was to the hard-working, tidy immigrant community of his youth in Wisconsin, to which his family had emigrated from Scotland when he was twelve years old, Muir's frequent encounters with back-country living in the South, particularly in the mountains, did not impress him.


"All the machines of Kentucky and Tennessee are far behind the age," he observes.  "There is scarce a trace of that restless spirit of speculation and invention so characteristic of the North. But one way of doing things obtains here, as if laws had been passed making attempts at improvement a crime…This is the most primitive country I have seen, primitive in everything. The remotest hidden parts of Wisconsin are far in advance of the mountain regions of Tennessee and North Carolina.".  He recounts a philosopher in the Kentucky hills mocking the uppity ways of an ambitious neighbor:  "'There's a place back heah,' said my worthy entertainer, 'whar there's a mill-house, an' a store-house, an' a still-house, an' a spring-house, an' a blacksmith shop—all in the same yard!  Cows too, an' heaps of big gals a-milkin' them.'" Such a thing!


Given his time amongst such places and peoples, Muir particularly relished his days in the natural beauty of trees and streams.  Describing Bonaventure Graveyard outside Savannah, Muir observes that "You hear the song of birds, cross a small stream, and are with Nature in the grand old forest graveyard, so beautiful that almost any sensible person would choose to dwell here with the dead rather than with the lazy, disorderly living."


Muir's low point on his thousand-mile walk occurred in Savannah.  He arrived with a dollar and a half in his pocket, and eagerly checked the post office for an expected money draft from his brother—it had not arrived.  "Feel dreadfully lonesome and poor. Went to the meanest looking lodging-house that I could find, on account of its cheapness."  The money package did not arrive the next day, nor the four next days.  Muir could not afford even the "meanest looking" hostel again, and had noted numerous menacing bands of ex-slaves checking out travelers in the city and its environs.  Where to sleep with reasonable expectation of avoiding robbery or worse?  He hit upon the Bonaventure Graveyard outside of town, where "no superstitious prowling mischief maker dares venture for fear of haunting ghosts."


The graveyard was Muir's resting place for five nights, where "On rising (in the morning) I found that my head had been resting on a grave, and though my sleep had not been quite so sound as that of the person below, I arose refreshed, and looking about me, the morning sunbeams pouring through the oaks and gardens dripping with dew, the beauty displayed was so glorious and exhilarating that hunger and care seemed only a dream." 


After several days subsisting on a few crackers in the morning and evening, though, Muir became weak and dizzy.  Unable to secure employment of any sort in the town, he would trudge from graveyard to post office each morning, only to be disappointed.  By the sixth morning, he was hallucinating. "I was becoming faint, and in making the journey to the town was alarmed to find myself growing staggery and giddy.  The ground ahead seemed to be rising up in front of me, and the little streams in the ditches on the sides of the road seemed to be flowing up hill.  Then I realized that I was becoming dangerously hungry." 


Finally the funds arrived.  "Gladly I pocketed my money, and had not gone along the street more than a few rods before I met a very large negro woman with a tray of gingerbread, in which I immediately invested some of my new wealth, and walked rejoicingly, munching along the street, making no attempt to conceal the pleasure I had in eating.  Then, still hunting for more food, I found a sort of eating-place in a market and had a large regular meal on top of the gingerbread!  Thus my 'marching through Georgia' terminated handsomely in a jubilee of bread."


Muir had originally planned to press on from the Gulf of Mexico to South America, forge Humboldt-like through the tropical forest to a tributary of the Amazon, and raft down the great river's entire length.  Muir himself in later years acknowledged that the idea was foolish; fortunately he was not able to find a ship to take him to South America, and settled instead on California, to see the Sierra Nevada's recently discovered Yosemite Valley. Muir more than reached his botanical goals on his thousand mile walk through the South, as he encountered, keyed, pressed and collected hundreds of new plants, reveling in their splendor. 


Reading Muir's journal entries during the ramble, one is struck by two things.  First, of course, is how foolish Muir was to trudge solitary through the American South but two years after the devastation of the Civil War.  Indeed, by his own account he was frequently in real danger of his life.  Only luck and his steely courage in tight situations brought him through.


Second, one is struck by how winning Muir's ways were with the vast majority of the people he met, White and Black.  With the Blacks, he is usually freely given food and lodging and enjoys the company.  With the Whites, sometimes the same is the case, though often there is initial refusal and considerable questioning and conversation before his acceptance.  This ability of Muir to attract and "win over" his fellows was a constant throughout his life, from post-bellum South to, later, the salons of San Francisco, New York, and London. 


That there were limits to Muir's likability and luck is clear, though.  The marauding bands of Whites and Blacks, thick in all the lands he traversed, were immune to Muir's charm.  He recognized this and avoided the dangers, for the most part, by eschewing camp fires, sleeping in a graveyard, and brazenly bluffing his way through the threat if all else failed. 


His journal entries reveal that the experience of wandering freely through new lands and societies, often braving danger, hunger, and loneliness, opened Muir to perspectives and possibilities not previously considered in his 29 years of life.  To a worldview, indeed, not previously well-explored anywhere in the West. 


In Muir's journal of this thousand-mile walk we find startling observations and thoughts regarding death, the nature of creation, the rights and roles of alligators, the place of humans in the world, and man's curious concept of God as "a civilized, law-abiding gentleman in favor either of a republican form of government or a limited monarchy."  


We will consider these radical, new views in later chapters.  Suffice it for now to note that his long ramble to the Gulf opened Muir's eyes and his mind, and took him a giant first step toward a way of viewing the world unknown in the Western tradition beyond hints and anomalies.  A way of viewing the world that would, over a century later, provide a ray of hope to rescue the human enterprise from an existential danger it was signally failing to resolve.



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Message to Humanity from a novel Coronavirus in the year 2025

 Guest blog by Palo Alto pathologist Mahendra Ranchod; see note at end


Date: January 2025


A few years ago, one of my cousins traveled around the world, trying to draw attention to problems facing our planet. She caused a great deal of panic, changed your life-styles, made millions sick and caused hundreds of thousands of deaths. But after the pandemic, life went on as usual.


We have a way of changing our coats, our surface proteins, so I now emerge as a novel virus – Covid-25 in your lexicon – the cause of another pandemic. I hope to cause more havoc than my cousin, Covid-19, but I don't think I will achieve my goal. You may think that coronaviruses are malevolent but we are not. We are simply asking you to change the way you treat planet earth.


You call us simple structures, non-living organisms, just strands of RNA wrapped in a coat of protein, but we have been around for more than a billion years and we have seen changes you have not. So, let me give you my perspective: The main problem is that there are just too many of you. Your species, Homo sapiens, is more than eight billion strong, and if left to your own devices, you will soon be ten billion.


"Well, why is that a problem?" you ask. "Look at us, we've only been around for 200,000 years, and unlike other primates, we learned to use our hands. We discovered the power of fire; we made tools from wood, stone and metals; we learned to farm; we found ways to utilize resources around us – forests, rivers, oceans and riches buried in the earth - and we have become masters of the planet within just a few hundred years. We have traveled to the moon, we create machines that work for us, we write books, we compose glorious music, we build impressive buildings and our electronic devices allow us to do everything so much faster than anyone imagined. Isn't that progress? Would you prefer us to remain hunter-gatherers?"


No, I'm not asking you to be stuck in time, but my family and I are asking that you take a fresh look at the planet and its resources. Your species has to face up to the challenges of its success. The planet can't support all eight billion of you, especially if you all aspire to live like privileged Americans. Your species, sapiens, is present in every habitable corner of the planet, and when you find new territory, you claim it, you change it and - knowingly or unknowingly - you displace or destroy other species.


You don't understand that the planet supports a complex biosystem. It wasn't always that way; it took more than four billion years of evolution to produce this wonderfully complex world. Why don't you spend a few minutes contemplating the complexity and beauty of everything around you? Have you seen a dazzling white glacier calve? Have you wondered how a tiny seed can grow into a majestic oak? Have you watched a Spiny Orb spin its tensile web? Have you watched how industriously the Masked Weaver builds its nest? Have you wondered how the fusion of a sperm and an egg – two single cells - could possibly give rise to an amazingly complex human being? Isn't everything around you impossibly marvelous, isn't everything around you astonishing? Are you willing to destroy all this?


"Hold on, hold on, coronavirus, I think you're making too many assumptions," replied President Xi Guanmian, who happened to be visiting the National Institute of Virology in Beijing, my current abode. "We co-exist peacefully with everyone in the world. I agree we've made mistakes, but we have a host of new technologies that will solve our problems."


Think again, Mr. President. This is a problem caused by humans. This is a human problem that requires a human solution. Technology will mitigate some of your challenges but technology is not the solution. I'll say it again: there are just too many of you, too many humans. If everyone in the world wants to live the life of modern man, you will have to reduce the world's population by half. Frightening, isn't it? How on earth will you do that?


I can assure you that my family and other members of our community, like the Influenza family, have tried to help. The Flu family did a great job in 1918 - an event you call the Spanish flu - but we are concerned that the balance of power has shifted and that we can no longer make enough of a dent in your numbers. Even though we change our protein coats every year, like Halloween costumes, your scientists see through our garb; they spot us much too quickly, decipher our RNA code and our protein structure, and within months, devise sophisticated PCR tests to find where we lurk. And your concerted efforts to produce a vaccine limits the time we can reign freely.


So, President Xi, if we can't help you and your species, how will you cut the human population to four billion? You could do it with nuclear weapons, but that that would be too dirty, too much collateral damage, just too many unwanted side effects.

President Xi thought for a while and said, "My government has a plan but I can't share it with you because you and your friends travel all over the world and I doubt you can keep a secret."


Well, President, I don't have time for an extended debate because I have a job to do: I have to create havoc around the world. But before I leave, let me tell you why my family is so angry, and how we see your future.


Your species is arrogant. You think you have the right to change this planet for your benefit -    and for your benefit alone. Look at what you have done: You pollute the air; you dump industrial wastes into rivers; your indestructible plastics strangle life in the oceans; you burn and cut down forests for personal need and corporate greed; you shrink animal habitats, making it impossible for birds and butterflies to complete their annual migrations; and you melt glaciers and the arctic cap because you love gas-guzzling cars more than you care about polar bears and arctic seals. I can go on and on but you get the gist of what I'm saying. Your species can do amazing things but you don't respect the planet enough. This is the only planet we have. There is only one of its kind. Don't ruin it.


The President did not like being lectured to; he was accustomed to being in charge. His allergies were bothering him again so he raised his faceguard, extracted two tissues from a box offered by his trusted aide and wiped his leaky nose. "Well listen to me, corona-what's-your-name, I think you are a pessimist, and besides, you have no right to talk to me in this demeaning way. I am president of China. I'm leaving."


Just one more minute of your time, Mr. President. Quite frankly, I see a dismal future for your species. I see a great deal of pain - not in the distant future - but in your lifetime - and climate change will be the catalyst.  I see rising oceans swamping coastal areas; I see frightening fires and destructive, unseasonable storms; I see extinction of more and more species; I see wholesale extinction of bats and bees, your pollinators; I see a desperate shortage of food and fresh water; I see hordes of migrating humans seeking refuge - only to be turned away by the military might of the haves; I see armed conflicts between countries of the world because your species cannot understand that earth's resources should be shared by all.


Here is one possible scenario. The disastrous effects of climate change may cause a sharp decline in sapiens, but the society that emerges from this catastrophe will not be egalitarian.  There will be an ugly division between the haves and the have-nots. A minority - the elite - will have total power, live in fortified enclaves and enjoy what remains of the earth's resources. The vast majority will be disenfranchised and …


"Stop! Stop!" interrupted President Xi, "Stop your histrionic rantings, stop this ridiculous nonsense."  The President did not like this sort of talk; it reminded him of feudal China, the China of his great-grandparents. President Xi was angry; his plan for a brief imperial visit to this top-secret, level-4, Biohazard laboratory was being thwarted by this pesky non-entity. He was going to make a speedy exit.


Covid-25 took a deep breath. Just one more thing, Mr. President. My family is not concerned about what happens in the next two or three decades. We are more concerned about what will happen by the end of this century.

The President's attention suddenly perked up and he asked, "What's that?"


The planet will survive. It will be different. There may be no mammals on earth but some insect species may survive. Life has a way of going on. There will be a new cycle of evolution.

"Impossible, what rubbish. I'm going," shouted Xi, and with that he stalked off in a huff, little knowing that one of my companions had made her way into the President's nasal cavity, and that he would be the first victim of the 2025 pandemic.


Contributor Mahendra Ranchod is a pathologist in Palo Alto, CA. His concern for the future of our planet, and frustration at our tardiness in addressing the most important issue of our time, impelled him to some "emergency gardening" during which he imagined the dialogue given above.  Used with his permission.








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Making Sense of Covid-19 Deaths

Herein a drama in three acts, playing out over the course of a week.  We begin with a singular editorial in the prestigious Economist magazine.  Then a response from Barnett, written soon after the editorial.  We end with pertinent quotations from various others that I noticed over the ensuing week.  Enjoy, if you can.


Act One, the Stimulus (Economist, 25 April 2020)

"Connectedness (between climate change and Covid-19), though, is no excuse for sloppy thinking. The two scourges are not usefully treated as the same problem—of excessive economic growth clogging the sky as it encroaches on the wildernesses where new pathogens lurk. There is no single rethinking or rejection of the way humans live today that will solve both…the pandemic is not, as some say, 'nature's reset'. Such thinking easily slips into the misanthropy that can lead environmentalists to see people themselves as the problem."


Act Two, the Response (Barnett)

The hundreds of thousands—and counting—deaths due to the Covid-19 pandemic teach us about how humans must live on this planet, if we know how to see it.  This latest disease leaped into human society from our incessant push into wild areas heretofore relatively untouched by humanity.


 Covid-19 is merely the latest (and certainly not the last) disease transmitted to humans from animals (zoonoses) this past century: 1918 Spanish flu (the first H1N1 virus pandemic, claiming 50 million victims); 1981 HIV/AIDS; 1993 Hantavirus; 2002 SARS coronavirus; 2009 swine flu (the second H1N1 pandemic); 2012 MERS coronavirus; and 2013 and 2017 Ebola virus (with a 50% mortality rate).  Virtually all these diseases were transmitted from wild animals into whose habitats humans had recently spread with greater frequency. Worldwide we see the relentless advance of chain saws and bulldozers transforming forests and savannas into small farms or, more likely, palm oil or avocado plantations, exposing us to pathogens for which we are unprepared. 


How many such zoonotic viruses might leap to humans in the coming months and years?  Evidence suggests Covid-19 came from a species of bats.  There are some 1,400 species of bats worldwide, mainly in the tropics, each with between one and five types of coronavirus in their populations.  (By comparison, humans have 7 varieties of coronavirus, counting the recent Covid-19.)  Accounting for probable overlap among the bat species, UC Davis researcher Tracy Goldstein and colleagues, in a 2017 study of bats in 20 African, South American, and Asian countries, calculated that more than 3,000 varieties of coronavirus are circulating in bats alone—and potentially able to leap into encroaching human populations. This number does not count coronavirus types in rodents and primates, also vectors of epidemic diseases into humans. And it does not look at other virus types, such as the distinctive Ebolavirus. The next pandemic, clearly, is only a question of when, not if.  And the wait will not likely be long.


Simultaneously, our ballooning human population and urban density provide the perfect breeding ground for new pathogens to flourish.  Just as a vast field packed with corn plants is the optimal condition for crop pathogens that can extract a living from that organism, so dense cities dotting the countryside provide irresistible conditions for diseases able to thrive and extract their own living from packed masses of Homo sapiens.  Yes, to viruses, bacteria, fungi, and parasites, humans are just wonderfully large bundles of food and energy, waiting to be harvested.  And we could hardly manage ourselves any better to entice and provide easy access of ourselves to these organisms with which we share the earth—like it or not.


But these are superficial lessons, as superficial as demonstrations against oil corporations or pleas to control human population size.  When we dig deeper, we see that the fundamental, root cause of these pandemics is the same as that producing climate change and plunging biodiversity of insects, whales, and other life forms.  Underlying all these phenomena that are about to bring the human endeavor to a screeching, horrifying halt on this planet is a single factor: the prevailing view that humans are central, that humans are superior to all other creatures, that humans can drill, mine, dig, dam, transform, burn, destroy, kill, and otherwise plunder the planet for profit without any consequences that we can't fix.  All this is OK because we alone are godlike and given the planet to exploit.  It says so in the Bible and the Koran; look it up.  And for most of human civilization for the past 4,500 years, this view integrally includes the conviction that our brief lives here on earth really don't matter much, certainly not as important as an eternal life we will have in heaven after our earthly deaths.  Whatever we do to the earth is likewise not very important, because it is our eternal afterlife in a transcendent, other world that really counts. 


Though we may not consciously be aware of this underlying human-centered worldview, it is a given, a way of interpreting our world, a widespread agreement that has underlain and permeated human society and all our lives for thousands upon thousands of years.  Like fish immersed in water, we unconsciously take it for granted and don't dream of questioning it. It gives rise to the ravenous consumer society that today engulfs the world.  It blinds us to the inherent contradiction and impossibility of an economic system that assumes—that is predicated upon—perpetual, infinite economic growth on a planet that is clearly finite in its resources.  Capitalism is transparently a Ponzi scheme, that can only survive by continuous and increasing destruction of the earth.  So long as humans were a relatively minor component on the planet, we could persist in these contradictory, destructive views and the myriad practices emerging from them. 


No longer.  Now we are seven billion, on schedule to be 9 billion by mid-century, and 12 billion by the advent of the next century.  We have destroyed 95% of the rainforests from which we originally emerged onto the savannas.  A 2018 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that of the incredible, swarming hordes of wild mammals on the planet's land and sea when the human mammal began its vaunted "civilization," 83% of the land mammals have since been lost, and 80% of the marine mammals.  Today, by biomass, humans comprise 36% of the world's mammals, our livestock another 60%.  A mere 4% of mammal biomass today are wild mammals; many of these (including tigers and African elephants) are destined for the final insult from humans—extinction—within the next half century.  Our fellow mammals no longer share the planet with us; we dominate it, and they have been decisively shoved aside and soon virtually all will be gone. 


Modern science is a relatively recent phenomenon.  In just the past two centuries it has utilized its impartial, fact-based, experimental mode of investigation to establish that this entire human-centered, transcendent worldview is nonsense.  A multitude of scientific findings tell us—if we have eyes to see and ears to hear—that in fact humans are not central.  That humans are merely one part of an integral whole, all dependent on vast biogeochemical cycles with critical input from bacteria, the water cycles linking fresh water with the oceans, and plants converting sunshine into the nutrients upon which all life is based.  Without our fellow creatures and the planetary cycles linking us to them, we could not have evolved and cannot continue to live.  Life—ours included—is not human-centered; it is, in fact, earth-centered (or Gaiacentric, using the ancient Greek word for the earth). 


Though these facts are crystal clear, the overwhelming mass of humanity refuses to see.  None are so blind as those who will not see, as the prophet Jeremiah and the satirist Jonathon Swift remind us.  Yet some recent observers have broken free of the constraints of the human-centered worldview to notice how the world really works.  Pope Francis: "Our efforts at education will be inadequate and ineffectual unless we strive to promote a new way of thinking about human beings, life, society and our relationship with nature…We do need to slow down and look at reality in a different way."  And journalist Naomi Klein:  "The task is to articulate not just an alternative set of policy proposals but an alternative worldview to rival the one at the heart of the ecological crisis."


Just so. But this realization on the part of a few has not been matched by any serious, consequential steps to challenge the transcendent, human-centered worldview, and instead promote the acceptance of a worldview based on reality.  Pope Francis correctly saw that education would be key, but nothing has in actuality been done, by him, by mainline environmental organizations, by world governments, or the curriculum of our great universities.  Nothing.  This disconnect between the perception of the underlying problem, and action to remedy it with the articulation and adoption of a new worldview that reflects the reality of human life on the planet, accounts for our current predicament.  No number of demonstrations or boycotts or pleas for divestment will be sufficiently consequential to effect real change so long as the underlying worldview permeating our view of reality is unchanged and, incredibly, unchallenged.  Like fish we are doomed to swim immersed in the water of our old, nonsensical worldview, and nothing important changes—or can change, so long as the old worldview reigns.  Victories will be small and the lumbering inertia of the old worldview will continue to steal the earth from our children.


What would it take to change the transcendent, human-centered worldview?  A vast educational campaign that would articulate the old worldview, mercilessly point out its fallacies and its contradiction of reality, and proceed to forcefully articulate a new earth-centered worldview, its extensive proof provided by science (and by our current catastrophes), and the absolute necessity to adopt the new worldview post-haste and model our actions upon it. 


Easy to say.  Evidently, difficult to do.  But there is no other approach fundamental enough to evade the tsunami of death and worldwide destruction bearing down upon human civilization today.  No one cognizant of science and the way the real world operates can pretend that Covid-19 will not be succeeded by another pandemic—and that not so very far in the future.  The current and impending catastrophes of climate change have been well-catalogued. So long as the human-centered, transcendent worldview is unchallenged and unchanged, all our well-meaning demonstrations, speeches, goals, lofty resolutions, and plans for the future are utterly meaningless.  No—worse than meaningless, because they fool us into thinking that we can handle climate change and pandemics and plummeting biodiversity without fundamentally changing how we perceive reality—our worldview. 


Three decades have passed since climate crisis was announced in a 1988 congressional hearing by Goddard Institute director James Hansen, and spelled out the next year in The End of Nature by Bill McKibben.  Mr McKibben evidently hoped that simply penning a clear explanation of the problem would inspire people to action to solve it.  Thirty one years later, Mr. McKibben is still organizing demonstrations and getting arrested, and has galvanized the entire climate change movement. Alas, viewed starkly, the movement has made remarkably little serious, concrete headway on the national or international level—due in large part to a mute acceptance of the old, prevailing worldview.


I assayed a first articulation of a comprehensive, earth-centered worldview (the "Immanent worldview") in my 2016 book on John Muir (Earth Wisdom: John Muir, Accidental Taoist, Charts Humanity's Only Future on a Changing Planet).  There I also showed that certain facets of the Chinese religion/philosophy of Taoism contained virtually the same worldview as Muir indicated in his journals.  (And accounted for the surprising similarity; both Muir and the mountain-dwelling Taoists came to it by the same method, as described in the ancient Tao Te Ching:  "How do I know the world is like this? By looking!").  Now I am finishing a book on Mesolithic and Neolithic human cultures in Europe and China (The Gardeners of Gaia), which argues (persuasively, I think) that the same earth-centered, immanent worldview ruled there for ten thousand years prior to the advent of the Bronze and Iron Ages. 


Two books by an obscure California scientist clearly isn't nearly enough to do the job, though.  I freely admit that I plug away more in the spirit of the Roman Catholic confessional phrase (used also by Marx in 1875) Dixi et salvavi animam meam, "I have spoken and saved my soul," literally, though in my case, more like "I've said my piece, and assuaged my spirit."  But perhaps, just perhaps between these efforts and those of the very many good people (foremost among them the above-mentioned Bill McKibben, for whom I have enormous admiration) struggling to save humanity from its rush to destruction, maybe we'll be able to save a remnant to rebuild human culture along more sustainable lines.  That is my prayer, for my kids and grandkids. 


Act Three, Input from others the ensuing week

Thomas Lovejoy, George Mason University, acknowledged "Father of Biodiversity": "This pandemic is the consequence of our persistent and excessive intrusion in nature and the vast illegal wildlife trade…this is not nature's revenge; we did it to ourselves."


Leading biodiversity experts Josef Settele, Sandra Diaz, Eduardo Brondizio, and Peter Daszak, members of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES): 

"There is a single species responsible for the Covid-19 pandemic—us. Recent pandemics are a direct consequence of human activity, particularly our global financial and economic systems that prize economic growth at any cost.


"Rampant deforestation, uncontrolled expansion of agriculture, intensive farming, mining and infrastructure development, as well as the exploitation of wild species have created a 'perfect storm' for the spillover of diseases…These activities cause pandemics by bringing more people into contact and conflict with animals, from which 70% of emerging human diseases originate," they say. Combined with urbanization and the explosive growth of global air travel, this enabled a harmless virus in Asian bats to bring "untold human suffering and halt economics and societies around the world. This is the human hand in pandemic emergence. Yet (Covid-19) may be only the beginning.


"Future pandemics are likely to happen more frequently, spread more rapidly, have greater economic impact and kill more people if we are not extremely careful about the possible impacts of the choices we make today…It may be politically expedient to relax environmental standards and to prop up industries such as intensive agriculture, airlines, and fossil-fuel-dependent sectors, but doing so without requiring urgent and fundamental change essentially subsidizes the emergence of future pandemics.


"Business as usual will not work. Business as usual right now for pandemics is waiting for them to emerge and hoping for a vaccine. That's not a good strategy. We need to deal with the underlying drivers…We can emerge from the current crisis stronger and more resilient than ever, by choosing actions that protect nature, so that nature can help to protect us."


Inger Andersen, UN environment chief:  ""Nature is sending us a message…Failing to take care of the planet means not taking care of ourselves."


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